PORTLAND, Maine — Maine wind power is a rural business. That fact provides a conflict point for advocates who say it’s a boost to those rural economies and detractors who argue wind farms mar the landscape.
It also frames a point both sides can agree on: Without new power lines, Maine wind power development is at a standstill.
Setting aside both arguments, it’s a curious regional infrastructure issue, which is the focus for Alan McBride, the director of transmission strategy and services for the nonprofit regional grid operator, ISO-New England.
The distance between major power demand and Maine’s rural wind resource has prompted the ISO to study a way for wind power developers to cooperatively fund power lines they need to connect to the grid.
The plan, which would require federal approval, aims to unclog a bottleneck of requests from wind power developers with projects they want to connect to the regional grid. Maine dominates that waiting list.
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Ridgelines in the north, Down East and west provide some of the strongest winds in New England, drawing the attention from developers who already have installed turbines with about 900 megawatts of wind power capacity in the state.
But the rural expanses best suited to wind power, by their nature, are far away from the region’s major power customers, with limited infrastructure to support shipping that power south.
As a result, that already installed wind power has nearly tapped out the available capacity, according to McBride. It has prompted an ISO-New England committee to study the issue and prepare a proposal that would allow multiple generators to bundle the costs of grid connections they need.
That strategy is called clustering, which differs from the first-come, first-served method the regional operator uses to handle requests to connect to the grid.
Under the plan, the grid operator would bundle significant connection requests for areas on the grid where two or more generators want to plug in. The developers would then share the costs of those projects based on their use of the added capacity or they could opt out of the joint proposal and get back in the connection queue.
Jeremy Payne, executive director of the Maine Renewable Energy Association, said that move could help restart stalled projects, such as Pattern Energy’s King Pine project and EDP Renewables’ No. Nine wind farm.
The two proposals for southern Aroostook County together would nearly double Maine’s current wind power capacity.
“That would be a real jump-start to the industry,” Payne said, noting development has plateaued in recent years.
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During a forum Friday, McBride said the grid operator plans to submit the proposal for approval by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, as soon as a quorum of commissioners is confirmed. A Senate committee on June 7 approved two of President Donald Trump’s nominees for the commission, moving it closer to a quorum, according to trade publication Utility Dive.
Meanwhile, the ISO and utilities Central Maine Power Co. and Emera Maine continue to study more specific plans for transmission projects reaching into northern and western parts of the state, including a new 345-kilovolt line that McBride said would support up to 2,000 megawatts of new wind power capacity.
That’s about 57 percent of the proposed project capacity that’s asked to connect to the regional grid, according to the latest interconnection requests.
“It will enable a lot of things to move forward to the extent that people are ready to do so,” McBride said.
Meanwhile, energy experts at the Friday forum said the region’s infrastructure challenges have also raised demand for offshore wind farms, which could be much closer to the major load center in and around Boston.
The country’s first grid-connected offshore wind power project began operating off the coast of Rhode Island in December. In 2013, a University of Maine-led project launched the first country’s first offshore turbine with a scaled-down test model of its floating turbine.
Many companies based in Europe, where the offshore industry is more mature, also are eyeing projects in U.S. waters.
Longer term, the U.S. Department of Energy projects the Northeast will play a key role in development of offshore wind power in the United States.
Suzanne Tegen, a wind researcher with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, said the DOE forecasts the Northeast will support about one-third of offshore generation by 2050.