April 4, 2010

Excess wind power finds home on Maine islands

Thermal storage heaters could help Vinalhaven and North Haven offset the high cost of petroleum.

By Tux Turkel tturkel@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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.

Noise levels still too high, residents say

Organizers of the Fox Islands Wind Project say the three turbines that began turning last fall on Vinalhaven generated more power this winter than residents needed, putting the community on a path toward stable energy costs. But attempts to lower noise levels that are disturbing some people who live near the towers have yet to make a difference, according to Cheryl Lindgren, one of the residents.
“They say it’s going to take time, and that may be,” she said. “We’re always hopeful.”
Remedies are still being studied, according to Bill Alcorn, who serves on the Fox Islands Wind board. Turbine speed has been turned down a bit at night to comply with state noise standards. Sound insulation may be upgraded around the turbines, and a sound engineer is analyzing data collected by neighbors, although some abutters have declined to return the logs, he said.
The board remains committed to trying to reduce the impact to neighbors, Alcorn said. But overall, he added, the turbines are performing as designed.
“They’re a major step in helping this island survive,” he said. 

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.

(Continued on page 2)

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