Mick Peterson says by 2011 he expects a tidal energy project with turbines packed into tractor-trailer-sized units submerged off Eastport to start feeding power into the New England grid. It’s a project that, he says, truly puts that type of energy production to the test: If tidal can’t work here, it can’t work anywhere in the United States.
Habib Dagher wants to tether a giant windmill 10 miles off the coast by 2012 as a test site that taps into massive Gulf of Maine winds. He says that energy, and the jobs that follow “could transform our economy for forever.” In November, the Legislature and Gov. John Baldacci will ask voters if they want to put $6 million into the idea.
Meanwhile, GridSolar LLC wants federal stimulus money to make an as-yet-unnamed town in Maine a test site for solar energy — and keep making its case to unseat Central Maine Power Co.’s billion-dollar transmission line upgrade.
Proposals for renewable energy are generating talk across Maine and increasingly, developers have not only dreams, but dates.
There’s onshore wind. Offshore wind. Way offshore, or deep-water, wind. Tidal power. Solar. All potentially destined to feed electricity into the New England grid. And that’s in addition to efforts to use less energy, period. It’s no accident that we’ve been hearing about all that and more over the past six months.
“I think we’re in the middle of the biggest discussion of our energy future in 20 years,” said Pete Didisheim, senior director of advocacy for the Natural Resources Council of Maine.
Behind the stepped-up urgency: “Maine is a lot more fragile to increases in energy costs than just about any state other than Hawaii,” said Dagher, director of the Advanced Engineered Wood Composites Center at the University of Maine.
By his math, heating oil, gasoline and regular electric bills, if last July’s energy prices had held, would have cost an average family $10,000 for the year.
“That’s basically a wake-up call for us,” Dagher said. “Energy as usual … simply doesn’t work.”
Volatility comes at a time when renewables are getting more attention and becoming more affordable, said Mark Isaacson, a founding partner in GridSolar and a Lewiston native.
“There’s been a (joke) about solar for the last 30 years that the great price decline is only 10 years away,” he said. “It’s not a joke anymore; it’s actually happening.”
Here, and on the national stage.
John Dorrer, director of the Maine Department of Labor’s Center for Workforce Research and Information, spent the past year trying to define and track jobs in Maine in the renewable energy and energy-efficiency sectors. When Global Insights reported to the U.S. Conference of Mayors last fall, it estimated Maine was poised to grow 600 green jobs annually for the next 30 years. Those could come in everything from soybean farmers to engineers.
“With the energy industry, Maine has to think both big and small,” said State Economist Michael LeVert. “Big in the sense that Maine has the ability to play a major role in new technologies like wind and tidal power. But, certainly in the short-term, energy-efficiency initiatives hold the potential to support thousands of good-paying jobs.”
There’s clearly a stake in being first or, at the least, excelling early.
Here are the projects currently being talked about, the energy and money involved, and what Maine stands to gain.
Terrestrial wind: A breeze for now, but bring on the gale-force winds?
The way Didisheim describes it, big ocean wind farms are years away. Inland wind is now.
He sat on the governor’s wind power task force. That group’s goals, adopted by the state: 2,000 megawatts, or 2 gigawatts, of wind power installed in Maine by 2015, 3 GWs by 2020 — enough to handle roughly one-third of Maine’s energy load on the busiest summer day. (Given the on-again, off-again nature of wind, those turbines would only generate power 30 to 40 percent of the time, Didisheim said.)
Often referred to as terrestrial wind, it has a long way to go to hit that first goal. Agencies in Maine have so far approved just more than 320 MW. One or two big projects, like an 800 MW farm talked about for Aroostook County, could get at that, Didisheim said.
What’s in the works?
A 49-MW project in Oakfield is pending before the Department of Environmental Protection with a decision likely by the end of the year, DEP’s Jim Cassida said.
The review of a controversial project in Roxbury for another 55 MW is currently on hold. Developers, on their own, opted for quieter turbines, Cassida said, prompting another noise study. That puts a DEP decision months off.
“It gives them time to resubmit new redesigned drawings with new turbine specifications and us the time to look at them,” he said.
Three or four inland wind developers are in pre-planning stages. Others in pre-pre-planning.
The Land Use Regulation Commission, which oversees unorganized territories, expects more projects pending in front of it soon, a staffer said.
DOL’s Dorrer paid a site visit to the $320 million Kibby project in Franklin County last week, the biggest project to date. He wanted to ask contractor Reed & Reed what type of people they’ve been looking for and any hiring difficulties they’ve run into, part of getting a handle on how Maine might grow.
His take: “It may not necessarily be new esoteric occupations coming out of them, but there’s additional work in more areas of work. … I think ‘caution’ is the watch-word in terms of what we put out there with the numbers.”
Deep-water wind: ‘We have such a unique opportunity to lead’
Just off the Maine coast sits untapped wind power equal to more than 150 Maine Yankees, the nuclear power plant that once operated in Wiscasset.
Harness a fraction of that and Maine’s in business, says Dagher. “That is by any measure our largest renewable resource of energy in the state.”
The proposal he’s behind: Create the National Center for Deepwater Offshore Wind Research at UMaine. Adapt technology from the deep-water oil-drilling industry. Gradually tether 1,000 5-MW wind turbines 10 to 20 miles off the coast.
Europe’s ahead of the U.S. in wind research, he said, but no one is doing this sort of deep-water farming anywhere. Yet.
Dagher estimates installing 5 GWs over 10 to 20 years would amount to a $20 billion project with 15,000 jobs.
The U.S. Senate is due to vote soon on a bill that includes $4.8 million for start-up of the project. Separately, Dagher, Baldacci and the congressional delegation met in June with Energy Secretary Steven Chu to ask for $20 million in stimulus money. That would go toward getting the first test turbine, then a small test farm, in the water.
In November, Maine voters will be asked to put up $6 million as part of a $33.5 million bond package.
If the assorted funding comes through, Dagher would like to see a prototype built by 2011 and have it in the water by 2012.
“It’s such an important resource at the national level and we have such a unique opportunity through our position in Maine to be the leader,” Dagher said.
“We have the manufacturing infrastructure. And we have the busy neighborhood, the Northeast, that absolutely needs this kind of renewable energy within the next 10 to 20 years.”
To put the project in scale, on a peak usage day in the summer, Maine uses about 2.4 GW, he said. “We could be exporting clean electrons and became a net energy exporter in addition to taking care of our own needs.”
Dagher’s most known for working with composites — blending wood, plastics and other materials. He said the non-corrosive composites could factor in by either replacing traditional, corrosive materials, like steel, in platforms, cables and towers, or by covering the traditional materials in a composite skin. Last week, the U.S. House gave UMaine $250,000 toward developing composite wind turbine blades.
Beth Nagusky, co-chair of Gov. Baldacci’s Ocean Energy Task Force, said it has until December to identify up to five potential sites for shallow and deep-water wind testing. Last session the Legislature passed a bill drafted by the group to streamline the permitting process for testing and demonstrations, making it quicker to get out in the water.
At least one developer has expressed interest in a shallow-water wind farm, she said. That technology, already proving itself in other Atlantic states, is past the research and development stage.
“That could happen (in Maine) tomorrow,” said Nagusky.
Hydropower: Going with the flow
Hydropower’s still an alternative energy player, but isn’t seeing as much new activity as it did after the 1979 oil crisis, says Dana Murch, dams and hydropower supervisor for the DEP.
Back then, developers broke a 25-year new construction drought and gradually brought online about one-third more capacity.
One reason that’s not happening this time: Space.
“Most of the good sites have been taken,” Murch said.
Most activity these days involves swapping out old equipment for new.
In January, he counted 119 total hydropower projects in Maine, seven of which were inoperable or shut down for economic reasons, according to a report for the DEP. If all 119 project were running at full tilt, all the time, they’d produce 767 MWs of electricity, just shy of a Maine Yankee.
Solar: Coming to a town near you?
Since January, GridSolar has sought to derail CMP’s proposed $1.5 billion transmission line upgrade by counter-offering an alternative: instead of a widened swath of more powerful lines, hundreds of 20-acre solar panel plots around Maine.
GridSolar’s Isaacson said the company is in the process of giving state regulators a response to CMP’s objections to the solar plan and continuing to make its case.
It proposes, he said, a slow buildup of 2 MW sites, up to 800 MWs, in southern, central and western Maine, added in response to increased power demands. Each roughly 20-acre site would be covered in three to four acres of solar panels.
If it were built out fully in solar, GridSolar claims it could pull off the entire project for 30 percent less than CMP’s plan. The company’s already negotiating lease-option agreements with landowners, contingent on Public Utilities Commission approval, Isaacson said.
“Where we (Maine) are now is not on the map for solar,” he said. “The states that are on the map are in the Southwest. If this GridSolar project goes forward, we would leapfrog to the very front of the line and it is our hope by doing that we could stimulate some solar manufacturing, solar jobs, solar fabrication in Maine and become an industry leader.”
With pieces built here, he estimates creating about 900 long-term jobs.
A PUC hearing examiner said decisions on GridSolar’s quest to become a utility, as well as CMP’s and others’ objections and CMP’s proposed expansion, could be months off.
In the meantime, GridSolar is eyeing new stimulus money to power up a trial community. It’s a questionable prospect. One of the stipulations tied to the funds: Working with a local utility on the project.
“We intend to ask CMP. We have some doubts about their positive response,” Isaacson said.
Tidal: ‘Absolutely the right place to start’
Mick Peterson, a UMaine engineering professor, says Maine is “it,” and Eastport is the “it” within the “it.”
Four years in the works, the UMaine and Maine Maritime Academy staff have teamed up to study and test tidal power here, getting $2 million from Congress for the effort in the last four months.
“We’re the state in the continental United States with the largest resource, bar none,” said Peterson. That has to do with the long, jagged coastline and the highest tides in the world in the Bay of Fundy, he said. “It’s not like wind, where it’s spread out more evenly. Our coastline is so dramatic that there is more tidal energy here and a higher value commercial energy than anywhere else in the United States.”
The team’s been working with Ocean Renewable Power Co. (ORPC), a private company that has already generated electricity from a scaled-down prototype submerged in a section of ocean off Eastport called Western Passage.
“It’s absolutely the right place to start. As far as I’m concerned, there’s no second choice in the United States,” Peterson said. “If it won’t work commercially and economically in Eastport, it probably won’t work anywhere.”
The turbine units, capable of generating 5 or 10 MWs, are submerged deep enough to boat over. Cables bring the power back to land. “How much we can get out of a particular location is going to depend on the environmental impact as well as some details of some arrangements,” he said.
Too close together or too lined in a row and one turbine could rob power from another.
The cost to install tidal power is about $5,000 a kilowatt, Peterson said, on par with inland wind.
New federal funds will support more grad students getting involved, he said. Up next for the professors and students: Measuring the size of the potential tidal resource and its environmental impacts, first in Eastport, then creeping along the coast.
There are nine active tidal power proposals in Maine this summer, according to the DEP, two of those are ORPC’s.
“There’s nothing better than having private money saying yes to a concept,” said Peterson. “These are people who are putting their own funding on the line.”
His read of the renewable power scene: “Tidal energy in Maine is going to be bigger than terrestrial wind and smaller than off-shore wind, but sooner than off-shore wind.”
He envisions a viable project with electricity flowing into the New England grid in the next 18 to 24 months. Long-term, Peterson said, the implications could be big if Maine not only builds turbines — wind, sea and otherwise — but also maintains them.
Maybe heritage helps?
“On the tidal energy, what are the skill sets: It’s being able to repair, it’s hanging off a boat, it’s building, it’s working in all kinds of weather,” Peterson said. “Hanging off the side of a boat and fixing things, that doesn’t sound that far from lobstering to me.”