Island's power blowing in the wind?

By Lynda Clancy | Aug 06, 2005
Photo by: Dave Munson Les Bodman, who was waiting in line at the Vinalhaven ferry in Rockland, sees the wisdom in having the federal government help subsidize renewable energy projects because residents on Vinalhaven and North Haven face such high bills on a monthly basis. He lived on the island for five year and moved off just a few weeks ago. The increased living expenses were a big part of his reason to leave, although he still works for Vinalhaven Fuel. Other homeowners, such as Daniel and Laurie Hutchinson, have put their house on the market because, "it's just too expensive out there," said Dan. Both he and Bodman agreed that their electric bill had jumped dramaitically in less than a year, and said that they are in favor of the windmills or anything else that could be done to reduce electricity costs. Many people on the islands have generators now, purchased in response to frequent interuptions before the cable was replaced, and that some just run their generators at peak times and shut off their power.

Midcoast — Before too long, several Midcoast wind turbines may generate power for communities and schools, with operations tied to academic studies.

Last week the Fox Island Electric Cooperative, which serves approximately 1,000 customers on Vinalhaven and North Haven, submitted a $3.7 million application to the U.S. Department of Agriculture in hopes of securing funding under the High Energy Cost Program. That federal program has $19.5 million available for rural communities that contend with electric bills some 275 percent above the national norm.

If successful, the cooperative would erect two 180-foot-tall, Danish-built wind turbines on the westerly side of Vinalhaven to generate approximately 705 kilowatts. That extra bit of energy could reduce costs on the two islands by $250,000 per year.

"We're spending a lot on energy costs out here," said George Joseph, superintendent of the Vinalhaven School. "We're always looking for ways to bring our costs down."

The local taxpayer load was compounded this year by the Maine Department of Education's change in the public school funding formula, which cut Vinalhaven's geographic isolation grant, money that helped the school cope with higher operational costs. Island schools, in general, operate with costs 30 percent higher mainland schools, and if the USDA grant comes through for Fox Island, the students can anticipate a curriculum that includes some involvement with the windmill operations.

Meanwhile, on the mainland, students at Camden Hills Regional High School are also pursuing the construction of a windmill to help reduce electricity costs at their particular school, which has suffered exorbitant utility bills since opening its doors in 2000. Faulty energy design in the $16 million building resulted in hefty fuel bills and additional legal bills that have strained taxpayers.

At its July 13 meeting, the 11-member Five Town Community School District School Board unanimously endorsed a student-led initiative to work with the University of Massachusetts Renewable Energy Research Laboratory at Amherst to determine whether enough wind actually blows through the site on Route 90 in Rockport to sustain a windmill. The initial study requires installing a 130-foot pole with sensors to monitor wind data over a 12-month period. Students, who call themselves the Windplanners, will monitor the equipment and collect the data, a project that will be funded entirely through RERL, if students obtain a grant from the university. The test site will be near a retention pond at the high school.

In Rockport, there's a 34-foot height limitation in the existing land use ordinance, which may require that the Windplanners seek town approval with the zoning board of appeals and/or the planning board.

On Vinalhaven, the process is further along in the process. The wind-monitoring phase was concluded, and the Vinalhaven planning board has been discussing whether to write a windmill ordinance to accommodate the structures.

"It's in a discussion mode now," said Vinalhaven Code Enforcement Officer Dick Fish.

Dave Folce, manager of the Fox Island Cooperative, is hopeful the federal government will see that the two islands need relief from their power bills. Last year, the USDA funded $2.6 million to help the cooperative extend new submarine electric cables 12.5 miles from Glen Cove in Rockport to Vinalhaven. But rate payers still had to foot the remaining $4.1 million of the $6.7 million project, and are facing utility bills that are close to 300 percent more than the national average, said Folce.

The average North Haven and Vinalhaven homeowner pays more than $5,000 per year for electricity, fuel, propane and wood, he said.

Renewable energy is a logical development for the islands, and last year the cooperative installed photovoltaic systems and solar thermal collectors to heat water.

"It's the only way we can ever reduce rates out here," said Folce.

The grant that the cooperative is pursuing revolves once a year. Currently, the loan management staff is processing the applications, which were due July 25.

"It's heavily over-subscribed to," said Claiborne Craine, who is with the USDA's rural development division in Washington, D.C.

But the agency does not yet know what competition Fox Island may face because the mail system in federal government has slowed down due to security processes, Craine said.

The grant program targets only communities with average home energy costs exceeding 275 percent of the national average. Grant funds may be used for on-grid and off-grid renewable energy projects, energy efficiency and energy conservation projects serving eligible communities.

Last year, $1 to $2 million grants were distributed for wind, solar hybrid plants, plant upgrades and line extensions to communities in Alaska, Arizona and New Mexico.

For Superintendent Joseph, the proposed windmills on Vinalhaven will help reduce school budgets with renewable energy. Last year the school fixed solar panels to its shop classrooms, and now it is focusing on integrating windmill operations to the curriculum. This, along with a new marine technical program, reflects a hands-on approach to education.

"We're trying to get what we teach back to the community," said Joseph.
Comments (0)
If you wish to comment, please login.