Monhegan Island gets a little slice of the sun

First published in Landings, February, 2013.

Residents of Monhegan Plantation Power District (MPPD) hope to see lower costs for electricity in the near future as the result of a $420,154 U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) grant. The USDA Rural Utilities Service administers a High Energy Cost Grant Program for remote rural communities where the cost of electricity exceeds 275 percent of the national average.

Monhegan Island, located about 12 miles from the mainland, ranks among the top 20 communities in the U.S. with the highest cost for electricity. The 70 residents who live there year-round have paid an average of 70 cents per kilowatt-hour for electricity since 2008. Most mainland residents pay about 15 cents per kilowatt-hour.

A federal grant will allow the Monhegan Plantation Power District to switch among different sources of energy for electricity production, including solar and wind power. MLA photo.

A federal grant will allow the Monhegan Plantation Power District to switch among different sources of energy for electricity production, including solar and wind power. MLA photo.

According to the website, Monhegan is one of two Maine islands not connected to the mainland by an undersea cable. Electricity currently comes from a three-generator, 300 kilowatt (kW) diesel power station located at the top of Lighthouse Hill. Chris Smith, operations manager for the power district (one of several lobstermen who comprise the operations staff), explained that Maine Coast Petroleum brings diesel to Monhegan in a 42-foot tanker truck via the ferry from Rockland. He said that once the tanker arrives, MPPD brings its truck to the wharf. That truck is filled from the tanker. Then the MPPD truck carries the diesel up the steep hill to the power station where it’s transferred to a large bulk tank.

Smith said that since the generators were installed in 2000, MPPD slowly has been upgrading the distribution system which now supplies power to at least 80 properties (some of which are businesses). The USDA grant funds will be used to replace the district’s switchgear which will enable the power station to draw from different sources of energy, including solar and wind power. A new 40-kilowatt generator and a 13-kilowatt solar array for the power station’s roof will be purchased with the remaining funds.

Monhegan resident and island lobsterwoman Chris Cash said the upgrade will allow MPPD to address the huge disparity between winter and summer useage on the island. During the summer months the population swells as summer residents and visitors swarm the island. “The current system was designed to meet peak summer loads, and it certainly does that adequately,” she said. It is not well designed to deal with low winter usage.” An average February day can see electricity usage at less than a tenth of the load of a typical August evening, when every home, hotel, guesthouse and restaurant on the island is at full capacity. “This grant will fund an improvement to the system that addresses that disparity for the foreseeable future, and it will do so with a significant renewable-energy component,” Cash added.

Smith said they anticipate the improvement work will begin this coming fall after the tourist season has ended and the electricity demand has dropped off. “The first step will involve engineering and project permitting because Monhegan is a plantation under the Land Use Regulation Commission (LURC) jurisdiction for any development,” said Smith. “The next step, once bids are awarded and components brought on site, is to bypass the plant for up to 30 days, while running the island with a portable, rental genset (a electricity-producing generator),” said Smith. “At this point, the existing switchgear will be removed, and a smaller genset will be added to our existing fleet of three. Installation of the new switchgear comes next, then commissioning and load testing. The last step would be the install of 13 kW of photovoltaic panels on the plant roof. We also see this as a great opportunity to give some of the systems in the plant a thorough overhaul. It’s a fine time while everything is shut down.”

According to Smith, it’s not clear exactly how much cost savings Monhegan residents will see in their electric bills or exactly when the decrease will take place. However, he’s confident that those very high electric bills will eventually come down.

“MPPD cautiously won’t commit to a guaranteed average savings at this time,” said Smith. “Some of this will work itself out though the engineering process, and some after the project is completed and has been running for some time. We also see this as an insulator for rising diesel prices. Our supplier, Maine Coast Petroleum, works hard to keep their prices competitive. However, on islands, everything costs more to get here–period. This hybrid project is the first step in making MPPD greener but we don’t want folks thinking next month’s power bill is going to be lower, because it won’t be, at least not immediately.”

The Island Institute in Rockland played a major role in the district obtaining the USDA grant. Smith said that the Institute staff not only suggested the MPPD apply for the grant but also assisted with the application. The planned upgrades on Monhegan are “very exciting, long overdue changes that need to be made and will have a real impact on the type of electricity service that people will be able to get,” said Suzanne MacDonald, the Island Institute’s community energy director.