BOOTHBAY HARBOR — How many LED light bulbs does it take to avoid asking utility customers to spend $18 million on a new transmission line?

This question isn’t the start of some geeky energy joke. It’s a serious calculation in a first-of-its-kind experiment for Maine. For the next three years, the Boothbay peninsula will be a testing ground for innovative ways to maintain reliable electric service without building new power lines.

The experiment is just getting under way in earnest, and it’s taking longer than expected to ramp up. But there are encouraging signs.

Tourists swarming the shops and restaurants last week in this picturesque waterfront community probably didn’t notice, but business owners have swapped out thousands of high-wattage, heat-producing incandescent bulbs for cool, highly efficient LEDs. They also have installed dozens of solar-electric panels on businesses such as the Flagship Inn.

In the months ahead, more LEDs will be screwed in and more solar panels will go up. Batteries that store solar electricity during the day, and units that make ice at night to help run air conditioners, also may become part of the mix.

Taken together, these and other non-transmission alternatives, as they are called, are designed to make or save enough energy on the hottest summer days to keep the single transmission line connecting the Boothbay peninsula from overloading.

New England utilities have been on a powerline building spree in recent years, upgrading aging systems and planning for growth. But the billions of dollars in spending are driving up electric rates, and environmental advocates say a greater emphasis on energy efficiency and local generation could make some of this construction unnecessary. As a side benefit, they say, there would be less need to start oil-fired power plants that contribute to air pollution on the hottest days of the year.

If the concept works here, advocates hope it can be scaled up to satisfy power needs without transmission upgrades in larger communities, such as Camden-Rockland and Greater Portland.

PROJECT OFF TO SLOW START

The Boothbay peninsula is a good place to test this approach in Maine. It’s a small area, but running all the air conditioners, dishwashers, water heaters and lights for the summer tourism scene has pushed the sole transmission line to capacity on sweltering days.

So far, though, the experiment is off to a slow and uneven start.

The initial goal was to line up 2,000 kilowatts of non-transmission alternatives this year. That would have been enough capacity to power roughly 500 homes during peak periods.

But only 860 kilowatts worth are in place today. It’s enough to handle roughly 8 percent of the peninsula’s peak load and provide the needed margin of safety this year, but less than half the kilowatts sought in a first-round bidding process.

The experiment also suffered a setback this spring, when a major project that would have paired solar panels with battery storage fell apart at the last minute because of a problem with financing. Now a diesel generator will be on call to plug the gap, in case the solar panels and efficiency measures aren’t enough on some steamy afternoon.

The three-year experiment is known as the Boothbay Pilot Project and is being conducted for the Maine Public Utilities Commission. It was born out of a 2008 tussle at the PUC between Central Maine Power Co., which was seeking approval for a $1.4 billion electric grid upgrade, and environmental groups. A compromise let CMP move ahead with its big project, on the condition that it help test a small, non-transmission alternative.

The alternative had an initial goal of including equal shares of renewable and non-renewable generation, energy efficiency and demand response, or shifting energy use to different times. Instead, it’s starting out with a diesel generator rated at 500 kilowatts and filling half the available menu of alternatives. Solar adds up to 230 kilowatts. Energy efficiency, such as the LEDs, is 140 kilowatts.

CMP has been participating in the project. But John Carroll, a CMP spokesman, acknowledged that the company isn’t enthusiastic about the test and generally sees transmission lines as the most reliable solution.

“I don’t know if I would call it a bad start, but it points to the challenges of micromanaging the (power) grid,” Carroll said. “This is as far as we’ve gotten so far, with a solution that’s 55 percent diesel.”

But Steve Hinchman, a lawyer who represents the project’s operator, Portland-based Grid Solar, said the reliance on a sole diesel generator for half of the first-round alternatives isn’t a sign of failure. The diesel only will be called upon as a last resort, he said, maybe for a few hours.

“This is a pilot project and the diesel is there as insurance,” he said.

Hinchman said he’s optimistic that innovative proposals, such as battery storage or off-peak cooling, will bid into the second round. And he said the cost of the first-round alternatives, including any power from the diesel generator, will be far less per kilowatt than what CMP would pay to upgrade or build a transmission line. That’s especially true of the lighting program, he said, which has drawn interest from roughly half the businesses in town.

ALREADY, SOME SUCCESS STORIES

The impact of changing thousands of light bulbs is on display at Gleason Fine Art. The gallery formerly had roughly 100 halogen bulbs, many rated at 75 watts, illuminating the artwork. They generated enough heat to warm the buildings in cool weather, and make the air conditioning work hard in the summer.

As part of the pilot program, Gleason swapped the halogens with 13-watt LEDs, provided by the state’s conservation agency, Efficiency Maine Trust.

“We are thrilled,” said Andrew Gleason, the owner. “Our electric bills are down two-thirds in some rooms, and by one-half in the room that has air conditioning.”

Gleason estimates his business will save more than $2,500 in electric bills in a year. He also noticed during the recent holiday heat wave that the air conditioning came on less frequently.

That observation is at the heart of the pilot program’s effectiveness, said Michael Mayhew, president of Heliotropic Technologies in Boothbay Harbor. Mayhew worked with small businesses on the LED switch-out. Stores and restaurants tend to have display lighting burning in the afternoon. Ditching the high-heat bulbs helps lower the cooling load at exactly the right time needed to reduce electricity demand from air conditioning.

Beyond increasing efficiency and cooling demand, the Boothbay pilot is seeking renewable power projects to generate electricity on site. No wind energy projects came forward for the first round, but several solar-electric proposals did.

Mayhew is preparing to do some of the smaller jobs, including the House of Logan and Joy to the Wind Studio. He recently installed a 13-panel array on the art studio and home of Rep. Bruce MacDonald, D-Boothbay.

Two Portland companies have won approval for bigger solar projects.

The back, southwest-facing roof of the Flagship Inn is covered now with 108 solar panels. With various tax incentives, the owner can pay off the cost of the system within five years, according to Goggin Energy, which installed the system.

“Solar is actually a perfect match for situations with summer capacity issues,” said Ann Goggin, the company’s founder. “Solar has its highest output at exactly when the utility needs that capacity the most, sunny summer afternoons.”

The town of Boothbay also is embracing the pilot project, with solar panels planned for the fire station, waste plant and public works garage. The work was initially part of the project that was unable to get financing. Since then, ReVision Energy has stepped in and is planning to do the job later this summer. It also will install solar-electric panels on the Tugboat Inn and Boothbay Harbor Hotel this fall, when the tourist season ebbs and contractors can work without being in the way.

Beyond generation, the pilot program is seeking projects that shift electric use to times when demand is lower, typically overnight. That’s not easy in a tourist town, when air conditioners and dishwashers are cranking on a summer afternoon. But technology can help.

A second round of bids for additional projects is scheduled for the end of this month.

One company that has expressed interest, according to Hinchman, is Ice Energy of Glendale, Calif., which sells the Ice Bear energy storage system. The unit creates ice at night, when demand and utility rates are lower, and uses the ice during the day to help air conditioners cool a building. This system is common in hot climates.

PROJECT PREMISE SUPPORTED

Despite growing pains, the Boothbay pilot project already is proving that cutting power demand at peak times is a cost-effective substitute for new lines, said Beth Nagusky, Maine director for Rockport-based Environment Northeast. She pointed to Efficiency Maine’s LED numbers: The bulbs create savings at a cost of $78 a kilowatt versus $1,500 a kilowatt for building a new power line.

In Vermont, aggressive investments in energy efficiency helped cancel 10 new transmission projects, Nagusky said. That has saved New England ratepayers $415 million.

One lesson already being learned in Boothbay, she said, is that non-transmission alternatives need better access to financing that puts them on an equal footing with federally approved power line projects, which enjoy an attractive rate of return and are amortized over many years.

“In Maine, we are just beginning to tap into these lower-cost resources that can help forestall and/or avoid new, expensive transmission lines,” she said.

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

tturkel@mainetoday.com


Correction: This story was revised at 11:04 a.m., July 15, 2013, to state that Environment Northeast is located in Rockport, Maine, not Boston, as previously reported.