The Mouse that Roared

Søren Hermansen, the spokesperson for Samsø Island—Denmark’s alternative energy island— came back to Maine last month. Hermansen first came to Maine as a guest of the Island Institute last November, where he gave presentations to packed audiences in Portland and Belfast and to island communities of Chebeague, Vinalhaven and North Haven. During his recent visit, Hermansen addressed the governor’s Offshore Energy Task Force, as well as groups of students at the University of Maine and the College of the Atlantic. The Offshore Energy Task Force (OETF) is charged with recommending how Maine should create policies to attract entrepreneurial talent and capital to harness Maine’s vast offshore energy resources. Maine’s offshore wind, with a power-production potential measured in gigawatts—or many nuclear power plants, if you like—makes Maine’s land-based wind look modest.

Listening to the discussion at meetings of the OETF can easily give one the impression that some in the wind industry believe we need to think big, especially since Maine’s offshore wind resource has been likened to the Saudi Arabia of wind, and other New England states like Rhode Island are quickly gearing up to develop their own offshore wind resources.

But Hermansen’s recommendations, based on the last decade of his experiences on Samsø Island, are to start small, invite the public to participate and educate, educate, educate before scaling up.

Hermansen’s talk made clear that such an approach does not mean that a region’s wind power needs to remain marginal. Denmark’s wind energy now supplies over 20 percent of the country’s energy needs—and on some days, particularly in western Denmark on windy days in the winter, wind power can supply almost 100 percent of their energy needs for given periods of time.

Although Denmark has now clearly scaled up its industry, Samsø Island, with a population of about 6,000 farmers and small business people, was an important demonstration area. There, local people said they wanted to develop wind farms to reduce the outflow of young people and families who could not afford to stay on the island, where energy prices and other commodities are more expensive. So islanders took over their energy future and helped buy turbines—albeit with investments that were secured by Denmark’s “feed-in” tariff, which guarantees a minimum price for alternative sources of power. Nevertheless, Samsø Island became a vivid national and international example of the power of local leadership—the mouse that roared.

Hermansen made another really interesting point. In Denmark, the wind industry developed with many relatively small wind farms, not just a few giant offshore farms. This means that since the wind is usually blowing somewhere, there is a more consistent supply of electric power to the Danish grid. If you think solely in terms of a few giant offshore wind farms in Denmark or Maine, the problem of generating large amounts of intermittent power to the grid requires  enormous investments in upgrading transmission lines before a large-scale wind farm can proceed. On the other hand, with many small wind farms, grid operators have learned how to balance the load without imposing huge upfront infrastructure costs.

One of the other “deep” thinkers on the OETF is Dr. George Hart, a brilliant physicist who has been advising the Ocean Energy Institute, established a few years ago by oil industry maverick analyst and investment banker Matt Simmons. Hart points out that Maine’s real energy problem is not just the cost of electricity, but the state’s 80 percent dependence on home heating oil in the winter.

He also points out that Maine’s offshore winds produce peak power—as you might guess—in the winter. Thus, he keeps reminding his colleagues that the most valuable use of Maine's offshore wind is not to export the power onto a haphazardly interconnected New England grid, but to create a “smart grid” that can deliver winter wind power as winter heat for Mainers—and eventually for transportation when there are enough electric cars.

Some OETF members believe offshore wind farms will have to be way offshore in order to avoid the controversies that have bedeviled the Cape Wind project on Horseshoe Shoals, proposed for sacred sailing waters of powerful summer people three miles off Cape Cod. But again, Samsø Island’s experience is instructive. After two rounds of building small wind farms on the island, Samsø turned offshore and erected 11 more turbines within a few miles of the shoreline (one financed by Samsø’s summer residents), which is now an area that ferries to and from the island proudly divert toward.

Currently Vinalhaven and North Haven have been leading the way in developing small-scale island wind with an innovatively financed project designed by Dr. George Baker of Frenchboro and the Harvard Business School, in cooperation with the Island Institute. Without knowing it at the time, all the islanders involved in the project had instinctively followed Hermansen’s advice—start small, invite public participation and educate, educate, educate. This approach led to a vote last summer by the two islands’ electric co-op ratepayers—year-round and summer—of 382-5 to proceed with the project.

Close behind Vinalhaven and North Haven is the small island community of Monhegan, where power costs last fall and winter peaked at 70 cents per kilowatt-hour. Most customers on the mainland pay 15 to 17 cents per kilowatt-hour. Because Monhegan is so far offshore, the island is not connected to the grid by a submarine cable, as are Vinalhaven and North Haven. If Monhegan decides to proceed with a wind power plan for the island, they might also decide whether it makes economic sense to invest in a pilot smart-grid technology to turn winter wind into winter heat.

Whatever else the Ocean Energy Task Force decides about fashioning state energy policies, Maine’s island communities are likely to provide important insights because they are quickly becoming key demonstration communities for how Maine communities can be involved in the state’s energy future.

April 1, 2009