Island community cuts electricity charges with 4.5MW wind farm

US: Fox Islands Wind, a small island-based project 20 kilometres off the coast of Maine, could have a large impact on the future of community-owned turbines in New England and beyond.

Vinalhaven Island launched its own community wind farm (pic DGHDeo)

The 4.5MW wind farm on Vinalhaven Island brought its three GE 1.5MW turbines online in December, shaving roughly $0.045/kWh off electricity bills for some 1800 year-round residents of Vinalhaven and North Haven - connected to shore and each other by undersea cable and collectively known as the Fox Islands.

Additionally, the $15 million project provides a template for similar projects in an area where electricity prices of $0.28/kWh are commonplace. This is almost twice the price on the mainland and almost three times the national average.

"There are several aspects of the project that are absolutely replicable," says George Baker, CEO of Fox Islands Wind. "We're now talking to three or four other island and coastal communities about this model of community wind."

Baker, a Harvard Business School professor, also serves as vice-president for community wind at the Island Institute, a not-for-profit that promotes environmental issues among 15 Maine islands with year-round residents.

A seasonal resident, Baker latched onto the notion of island-based community wind three years ago while on a teaching sabbatical.

A renewable concept

One aspect Baker believes can be replicated is the financial model. The Rural Utilities Service, a federal agency, provided a $10 million low-interest 20-year loan. The other $5 million came from a flip-model structure, where a tax-equity partner owns 99% of the project for five years while the federal investment tax credit (ITC) is extracted.

After five years, majority ownership transfers to the community. Baker says the deal is structured so that throughout the project's lifecycle islanders pay a steady rate to the Fox Islands Electric Cooperative, which owns the undersea cables and serves both islands.

Another replicable aspect is overall enthusiasm, which led to uncomplicated permitting. Islanders voted 98% favour of the project, while the seasonal population, roughly 1200, is also onboard.

"The summer community is wealthier and they only pay an electric bill a couple months a year, so electric rates don't mean as much to them," Baker says. "But they're supportive because they genuinely care about the sustainability of the year-round community. It all kind of undercut the opinions of the rich people going by in their sailboats or the people many miles away on the mainland."

The difficulties in building on a small island

Building on Vinalhaven - Maine's largest inhabited island at 18 kilometres long by 6.5 kilometres wide - was no small task.

Cianbro, a Maine-based builder with vast heavy industrial and civil construction experience, had to deal with fishing boats, tourists, townspeople, the elements, expensive transport and more, says Parker Hadlock, the company's general manager of wind energy services.

But Hadlock remembers the August day when massive semi-trailer trucks packed with hulking turbine components were barged across Penobscot Bay and arrived on Vinalhaven.

"A good portion of the community showed up and applauded the trucks driving off the barges," he says. "We spent a lot of effort making sure that we did not disrupt that small rural fishing community with how we conducted ourselves. We didn't want to spoil the wave of enthusiasm that George's team had started."

A crew of 30 workers inhabited the island for the summer and Hadlock recalls another day when a truck and its wayward mammoth tower section blocked the island's main thoroughfare for hours.

"The road is meant for broken-down pickup trucks and not much more - it's paved but very narrow with curves and grade changes," Hadlock says. "There's fishermen getting to their boats, there's wives getting groceries and ice cream back to their refrigerators, and it's the only road to the middle of the island."

The islanders stopped their cars, walked around the blockade and swapped vehicles with neighbours in order to get about their business as the day wore on. "Our guys were lugging groceries and mail and anything else around the truck that was stuck to keep people moving," Hadlock says. "It actually turned out to be a very positive event with everybody pitching in."

Construction was another matter

Three inches below the island's topsoil is renowned Vinalhaven granite, which comprises many East Coast buildings and structures - including the Washington Monument and the Brooklyn Bridge. Anchoring the turbines required drilling 28 holes more than 10 metres deep.

"That granite is about twice as hard as normal granite," Hadlock says. "It makes for a great foundation but wears down your tooling. So it's a severe environment to begin with, but in mid-September the hammer comes down and the wind starts blowing. We purposely scheduled the project to do the most weather-sensitive work the last two weeks of August."

However, permit problems with tower sections coming out of Canada forced last-minute delays. "We made up that time," Hadlock says. "But we had to put up the last unit in the middle of the night within a two-hour window. As soon as we finished, the wind didn't stop blowing for a month."

Over the course of a year the turbines will produce almost exactly as much electricity as the islands need. "What that basically means is that you're not putting any extra load on the grid, so there has to be very little infrastructure," says Baker.

"This project is really and truly community owned. It isn't somebody paying a bunch of taxes to the town and it isn't somebody making a bunch of lease payments. These are real benefits coming through electric rates."


For more on Community Wind project see the upcoming February issue of Windpower Monthly