With less than 70,000 inhabitants but many miles of sunny, windy hills, Aroostook County has a bright future in renewable energy, in the eyes of Emera Maine executives Steve Sloan and Alan Richardson.
Emera, northern Maine’s power utility, is focusing on the reliability of the region’s aging grid and preparing for upgrades while studying future options, including the potential of wind and solar power, said Sloan, transmission manager, and Richardson, the president of Emera Maine.
The two executives were speaking with members of the Central Aroostook Chamber of Commerce at Cafe Sopresso in Presque Isle, during a warm winter with fewer power outages than usual. Despite that reliability, northern Maine’s electric grid is in need of some rehabilitation and renovation, Sloan said in a presentation.
Aroostook County’s grid is “heavily dependent on supply from New Brunswick” and also “has some weaknesses,” he said. Overall, half of northern Maine’s 350 miles of transmission lines are more than 40 years old, and at times in recent years electricity generators like the ReEnergy biomass plant have been forced to stay open by the Northern Maine Independent System Administrator, the nonprofit manager of northern Maine’s grid, to ensure there would be enough capacity for residential and business users.
The Tinker hydroelectric dam, a little more than a mile downstream and across the U.S. border from Fort Fairfield, has a capacity of 34 megawatts that carries power to consumers in Aroostook County, but its transmission lines are in need of repair.
“If we were to lose one of those lines, the other has to carry the whole load and in peak conditions, the line would not be able to handle it,” Sloan said.
Emera and the New Brunswick utility are slated to invest in upgrades to the lines and connections at Tinker. It’s a lower-cost, short-term solution to the reliability problem, and was approved by the Maine Public Utilities Commission, rather than Emera’s proposed connection to a power station in Woodstock, New Brunswick.
The upgrades at the Tinker dam will include a new transformer and a higher capacity, but in the long-term Emera is looking to win approval for $175 million in transmission projects through 2020, 60 percent of that representing replacements of aging infrastructure.
Emera Maine, a part of a Nova Scotia-based utility firm, is also looking to long-term solutions for the next 20 and 30 years.
Among the possibilities the company has been studying are new power generation, demand-side efficiency programs and transmission links such as to ISO New England, which would fully link northern Maine’s grid to the rest of New England, Sloan said.
At the same time, the region has the opportunity to generate more renewable energy and benefit from selling it at a premium to southern New England states with clean energy mandates, like the pending Number 9 Wind Farm in central Aroostook County would do.
“We do have wind, the ability to produce renewable energy, and the world is paying a big premium,” said Richardson, the president and COO of Emera Maine.
As with the 119-turbine Number 9 Wind Farm, the costs would be paid by consumers in Massachusetts and Connecticut, with the region benefiting from the energy-related jobs and tax payments, Richardson said.
Along with wind, Richardson said that Emera and other utilities want to see rooftop solar expand, as the costs of solar voltaic technology fall, despite the disagreements over net metering and how to pay rooftop solar customers for feeding energy into the grid.
“How to price solar” has become a “very contentious area of our industry,” Richardson said. “Solar is getting cheaper and cheaper, so the big question is why do they need the subsidies?” he asked. “Are there better pricing arrangements? That’s being debated at the Legislature in Maine, for sure.”
Whatever pricing schemes consumer advocates, regulators and utilities develop for solar power, Richardson argues that even rural electricity systems will be able to evolve into a “smart grid” if small-scale, clean energy becomes more affordable.
“If you look out 20 years I think you’ll see a lot more distributed generation that’s renewable. The bottom line is how do we get rid of the greenhouse gases, and there are not a lot of ways to do it.”
If ample renewable energy can be tapped, Richardson said, “you can run a car without emissions” — a holy grail for car-loving human beings. “Electricity I think has got a really bright future.”