April 24, 2018
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Federal grant will help Monhegan Island lower sky-high electricity costs

By Tom Groening, BDN Staff

MONHEGAN, Maine — Thanks to a $420,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture grant, the island will be able to diversify its electricity generation to reduce costs that now place it among the 20 communities in the nation paying the most per kilowatt-hour.

The grant will allow the island community, with a year-round population of about 70, to replace a switch, which, in turn, will allow it to add solar and wind power sources to its power generation capability.

The switch also will improve the automated change from one diesel generator to another, depending on demand, a move that will improve efficiency in the current three-generator power station. The money also will be used to purchase a smaller diesel generator to further improve efficiency and add a small photovoltaic system.

Currently, diesel is brought to the island, which is about 12 miles off the coast, on two small tanker ships, said Suzanne MacDonald, the Island Institute’s community energy director. The fuel is then pumped into a tank truck that parks at the pier. The truck then drives to the power station at the top of a steep hill on a windy gravel road, sometimes in icy conditions, where the fuel is offloaded into tanks that supply the generators, she said.

Because of the high cost of diesel, MacDonald said islanders pay 70 cents per kilowatt-hour for their electricity. Most Mainers pay 15 cents per kilowatt-hour and the national average cost is about 9 cents per kilowatt-hour, she said.

“Only remote villages in Alaska were paying more,” MacDonald said.

In 1999, the island — whose local government functions as a plantation, not a town — formed a not-for-profit, quasi-municipal power company with an elected board of trustees. Islanders intended at that time to pursue installing renewable power sources such as solar and wind, MacDonald said. A south-facing building with a roof capable of bearing extra weight was constructed with the idea of adding photovoltaics.

But the “switchgear” — a large, complex piece of equipment that fills most of a room in the building — did not function well and efforts to repair it failed. The switchgear is critical for the system to be able to accept power generated by photovoltaics.

In 2008-2009, residents began investigating adding wind power to the generating plant, but enthusiasm waned.

The generators can break down, and “somebody’s got to get up out of bed to go deal with it,” MacDonald said.

The grant also will pay for a 13 kilowatt photovoltaic system and a new 40-kilowatt generator, which is better suited to low-demand periods such as in the winter.

Though Monhegan is known as an artist colony and tourist draw in the summer, the island also is home to lobstermen and others who put together multiple jobs to make ends meet, MacDonald said.

“There are a number of fishermen,” she said. “It’s common for people to have three, four, five jobs. People are very hard working.” Those economic conditions make the burden of high electric costs hard to bear, she said.

“The costs [of living on an island] are tremendous on all fronts,” MacDonald said, with food and heating fuel also costing more than on the mainland.

The application for the federal Department of Agriculture funds through the agency’s high energy costs community program was supported by U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree and U.S. Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins.

In a statement issued with the grant announcement, Pingree said: “Year-round island living can be expensive and challenging, but island communities are a key part of Maine’s working coastal economy,” and the high electric rates threaten “the year-round nature of island communities.”

Chris Smith, operations manager for the island power district, added: “This grant is a game-changer for our year-round island community. We are grateful for the support of the USDA, Congresswoman Pingree and the Island Institute in helping us take this giant step towards a more affordable, efficient and sustainable power system.”

With the federal Department of Energy continuing to fund the University of Maine’s composite lab which is doing work on offshore wind power that will be tested off Monhegan, MacDonald is impressed with the role the tiny island is playing.

“Here is this place that is so remote,” MacDonald said, yet is leading the way with energy innovation of “national significance.”

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