The futuristic idea of heating buildings and powering cars with electricity from wind farms off the Maine coast is being tested on a small scale, on two islands that are home to a community-run wind project and some of the highest energy bills in the state.

During the next year or so, up to 50 homes and businesses on Vinalhaven and North Haven will install electric thermal storage heaters. These units, which can absorb a day’s worth of heat in dense, ceramic bricks, will be charged with electricity from the Fox Islands Wind Project.

The charging will take place when the project’s three turbines are generating more power than the islands need, which is common in winter. Rather than sell electricity to the mainland grid at low prices, the energy will be used on the islands to offset the high cost of oil and kerosene heat. In addition, some of the excess power could be soaked up by batteries in electric vehicles.

Organizers say the experiment is the first of its kind in the United States. In theory, it’s exactly what state officials hope Maine can do in the next decade by developing floating, offshore wind farms and tidal energy sites.

Theory is becoming reality this spring in Penobscot Bay. The first five units were hooked up in March on Vinalhaven; another is set to go in on North Haven. Residents say the heaters seem to be working well. next winter, they’ll know more about the “smart grid” technology that makes the power shunting possible, and the impact on their energy bills.

“Vinalhaven is a grid we can study,” said Adam Lachman, a local businessman spearheading the project for the Island Energy Task Force. “We can understand how it works.”

Using wind power to reduce Maine’s dependence on petroleum reflects the vision of the Baldacci administration and a task force that studied ocean energy. But it’s premature to say what Vinalhaven’s experience will mean in a larger sense.

A plan that would have raised electric rates to encourage ocean energy development by switching Mainers from oil heat to efficient electric heating systems was defeated last month in the Legislature. Moreover, industrial-scale wind power faces opposition for reasons including noise, a factor that remains an issue for at least some neighbors on Vinalhaven.

But supporters say wind energy can become a hedge for Maine against sky-high oil and gasoline prices in the future. On Vinalhaven and North Haven, that future is now. Electric rates are roughly twice what they are on the mainland, and heating oil is well over $3 a gallon.

“The overwhelming concern on the islands,” Lachman said, “is how much it costs to heat homes and businesses.”

In the initial phase, the task force is testing storage heaters donated by North Dakota-based Steffes Corp., which are distributed by Thermal Energy Storage of Maine. These units are common in Europe and Canada, and are becoming more available in other states. They use lower-priced electricity produced when demand is low, typically at night.

On Vinalhaven, the recently installed wind turbines produce excess power more than half the time they’re turning during the winter. The island utility sells this electricity to the mainland grid via an underwater cable, but the price is low compared with the cost of space heat.

On the mainland, a meter keeps track of when power is flowing off the island and a signal is sent to each heater telling it whether to charge or not. The meter also could tell the heaters to charge using electricity from the mainland grid, if the price is low enough. For this experiment, the power for the storage heaters will never cost more than 9 cents a kilowatt hour, which was the equivalent price for heating oil in March.

Storage heat participants paid less than that last month. The math worked out to an oil equivalent of $2.20 a gallon, at a time when oil was selling for roughly $3.20 on the island.

“So they’re saving $1 a gallon on their heating source,” Lachman said.

This seemed like a good deal for Shelly Andrews.

Andrews wanted to start heating her greenhouse in early spring, to grow flowers for her landscaping business. But the greenhouse has a kerosene heater, and the cost was too high.

“Now I can start sooner,” she said last week.

The storage heater is hooked to a computer modem in her home. Andrews’ husband, Tom, a plumbing and heating contractor, said the unit appears too small to warm the entire greenhouse but it should cut the use of kerosene, which has been costing more than $3.50 a gallon.

“That’s what we’re trying to determine, whether it’s cheaper than K-1,” he said.

The heater is getting good reviews at The ARC, Vinalhaven’s community center and Internet cafe. The unit there is warming 980 square feet of public space and reducing the need for an aging oil boiler.

The heat produced by the unit is very comfortable, according to Tristan Jackson, the center’s executive director. He wonders, though, how many more turbines the islands would need, or how much power islanders would have to buy from the grid, to greatly expand the concept.

“The question is, how far can it scale up?” he said.

In the bigger picture, scale will depend on how far Maine gets toward its goal of developing thousands of megawatts of wind capacity off the coast. any measure, said Sam Zaitlin, president of Thermal Energy Storage, excess capacity will exist at certain periods. Storage heat and the coming of electric vehicles are two ways to integrate renewable energy into the grid.

“When you get a sudden surge of wind,” he said, “rather than curtail generation, or ship it elsewhere, you can shunt it to heating or transportation.”

Using the energy locally to replace oil could have a side benefit, according to Beth Nagusky, a state environmental manager and co-chairwoman of the ocean energy task force.

“People may be more accepting of seeing, and perhaps hearing, wind turbines if they know they are replacing their oil furnace,” she said.

If the initial phase of the island experiment is a success, organizers plan to expand it to more households and create a more sophisticated control system.

Lachman and his colleagues have partnered with the Rockland-based Island Institute to help with project management and fundraising. A start-up company from Rhode Island, VCharge, is providing the energy management software to control the heaters. VCharge is working on a larger thermal storage program with Steffes Corp. in Concord, Mass., which has a municipal electric company.

Looking ahead, Lachman hopes the islands can partner with one of the car makers poised to release a plug-in vehicle this year. Another option is the fleet of electric recreation vehicles on the market, one of which is already on Vinalhaven, he said.

“This will allow us to study how we can use renewable power in the state,” Lachman said, “rather than thinking about how we can transport it out of state.”

 

Staff Writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or:

tturkel@pressherald.com