Wednesday, March 12, 2014
BOOTHBAY HARBOR — How many LED light bulbs does it take to avoid asking utility customers to spend $18 million on a new transmission line?
Michael Mayhew of Heliotropic Technologies looks over paintings at Gleason Fine Art in Boothbay Harbor. His company installed high-efficiency light bulbs at Gleason Fine Art and other businesses to reduce energy use.
Tim Greenway/Staff Photographer
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.
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