March 24, 2018
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Maine island’s plan to build its own energy grid could change the game for remote communities

By Lori Valigra

Isle au Haut residents plan to install a sophisticated microgrid this spring that could eventually end their reliance on expensive power and heating fuel from the mainland.

As on many of the other 14 Maine islands inhabited year-round, Isle au Haut residents pay at least double the amount a Portland or Bangor resident would for their electricity, kerosene and oil. Compounding matters, an aging undersea electric cable between Stonington and the island could fail any day, according to Jim Wilson, president of Isle au Haut Electric Power Co.

“In 1983, we put in an undersea cable we thought would last for 10 or 20 years,” Wilson said. “It’s now been 35 years. No one is expecting it to last forever, and it will be too expensive to replace, so we looked for alternatives.”

Aging infrastructure and tight funds to replace it is a fate distant islands around the country face, including in areas like Hawaii and Alaska. Microgrids, which are small, self-contained energy pods that serve local communities or even a single house or business, are being looked at as one answer. Microgrids may use some energy from the electric grid or sell excess electricity back to traditional utility companies, but they can operate on their own during outages.

Islands, out of necessity, have become the outposts for trying new technologies, especially renewable ones like wind and solar, in combination with batteries or backup diesel generators. Their creative, often lower cost solutions for sustainable energy, could change the game for remote communities everywhere, experts said.

“This is a replicable, scalable model for small islands and remote grid points,” Morgan Casela, co-founder of Dynamic Organics, said of the Isle au Haut plan. The Putney, Vermont, company is designing the Isle au Haut microgrid’s heat-pump system, which will turn extra electricity into heat, and collaborating with Portland-based software company Introspective Systems on the control system to keep it running efficiently.

“This microgrid is an example of what you need to put renewables onto the grid as a whole. It will showcase that you don’t need expensive government-sponsored microgrids,” he said.

Politicians are getting the message as well. During a 2015 presentation before the nonprofit Island Institute, which helps promote sustainable energy, Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, said, “we are in the midst of an energy revolution and the islands are Bunker Hill.”

Steven Strong, founder and president of Massachusetts-based Solar Design Associates, which designed the microgrid system for Isle au Haut, agreed.

“Islands are attractive because they are early market adopters. They have the highest electricity costs and are barging fuel out,” Strong said. “The cable to Isle au Haut could fail at any time or there could be too much demand for it to handle. The island is being proactive.”

He said microgrids are still relatively new, but they have grown rapidly over the past year or two to offer renewable alternatives in far flung places.

Cuttyhunk, an island 14 miles off New Bedford, Massachusetts, is a local example of an island that adopted a microgrid. It invested $2.1 million into the microgrid, which has been running since spring 2017. The island’s largest town, Gosnold, has 75 residents.

Monhegan Island last summer upgraded an unreliable diesel plant with a hybrid solar-diesel system that it plans to expand, said Brooks Winner, a community energy manager at the Island Institute. Matinicus Island is trying to raise money for a microgrid so it can move away from diesel power, as well.

What distinguishes Isle au Haut’s plan is that it will use excess electricity to heat homes. It also will have an intelligent controller to automatically watch the levels of electricity available at all times and to redistribute it to where it is needed at the lowest cost, Wilson said.

Cutting the cord

Isle au Haut is 6 miles long, 2 miles wide and located 6 miles off Stonington. It has 73 year-round residents and four times that in the summer. Half of the island is part of Acadia National Park.

Wilson said he looked into wind power, fuel cells, tidal power, a new cable and solar options. All are expensive, he said, but solar allows the excess power to be used in the winter. The electricity can be captured in heat pumps to supply electric heat. The system is designed for the larger summer population, which allows for capturing the excess electricity to turn into heat when they aren’t there. The cable would have cost about $2 million to replace.

Currently, electricity on the island is about 37 cents per kilowatt hour and oil is $4 per gallon, about double the prices in Bangor.

“Those prices make the island unsustainable as a community,” Kay Aikin, CEO of Introspective Systems, said. The median family income on the island is low at $34,000 per year. Most inhabitants catch lobster or make crafts.

“Our system, which is in the heat pumps and other devices, make the decision on whether they should use power or not depending on when prices are high or low,” she said. Introspective Systems is now creating a model of the planned microgrid to determine how it can work most efficiently to bring costs down. Microgrids are more reliable than the electric grid, she said, and they can be controlled locally.

Wilson said the project will be located on Coombs Mountain on land the electric company bought from the town of Isle au Haut last year. It will be installed in two stages.

Phase one, slated to be set up this spring while the cable is still operating, could cost up to $800,000. It will include the solar array that will use 204 kilowatts of solar panels, and 150 kilowatt hours of batteries.

Anticipating the 30 percent tariff President Donald Trump slapped on imported solar panels in January, Wilson said he purchased his panels ahead of time, and they’re stored at a warehouse in Stonington.

Phase two, which will be installed after the cable fails, will take the lessons learned from phase one and possibly add other renewable technologies, such as wind, to provide electricity when there is extended cloud cover over the solar panels, Wilson said. Generators still will be used to back up the microgrid. Isle au Haut also will have batteries in the system.

The phase two system could add up to 200 kilowatts of solar panels and up to 1,000 kilowatt hours of batteries. Wilson said that could supply up to 97 percent of the island’s power, with the rest supplied by the backup diesel generator.

Paying the tab

Funding remains a challenge for small- to medium-sized solar projects, the Island Institute’s Winner said.

“The challenges also are significant in a project trying to integrate new technologies,” he said. Winner remains optimistic about the project getting off the ground.

“Isle au Haut could provide valuable lessons for other communities to have more reliable, affordable and sustainable power,” he said.

Wilson said a bank has agreed to fund the project. But he first must find an outside investor, and said he is actively looking in Maine.

As a utility that operates at close to break-even, Isle au Haut Electric doesn’t pay much tax, so it cannot take advantage of the 30 percent federal tax credit for such microgrid projects. It will form a limited liability company that will be majority owned by an investor. That company also will take out the bank loan. Customers also will foot part of the bill for the new system.

“The usual arrangement involves a deal in which the investor gets all the tax credits and in return agrees to rent the equipment or sell the electricity to us at a rate that effectively transfers about 90 percent of the subsidy [tax credit] to our company. The investor makes over 10 percent return on the investment,” he said. The investor typically gets a full return on investment in one year, he said.

Going forward, the electric company will sell the excess electricity to islanders using heat pumps. That, Wilson said, keeps the money on the island rather than paying out-of-state oil companies or foreign-owned power companies for energy.

A DIY approach

Outlying islands don’t expect a helping hand from the state, Wilson said. The initial effort to get power to Isle au Haut was both a community and “do-it-yourself” effort teaming with Yankee ingenuity.

“In 1969, our residents got together and bought an old diesel generator from the Korean War era [early 1950s] for almost nothing and founded Isle au Haut Electric Power Co.,” Wilson said. “Before that people used private diesel generators. In 1983, we laid a cable from Stonington to Isle au Haut.”

Town resident Parker Waite, a commercial diver who moved to the island in 1976 to get off the grid, scoured the bottom from Stonington to Isle au Haut to see where any big rocks might be, according to the Island Institute’s April 2017 Island Journal.

Waite suggested laying the cable in snakelike pieces that could be spliced. Using a barge to carry the cable, a covered float where it could be spliced and divers to place it on the seafloor, the island community laid the electric cable it still uses today.

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Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Kay Aikin’s last name.

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