Isle Au Haut Takes Step Toward Energy Independence

“Resiliency” is a popular word these days, used to describe everything from human beings to national politicians. For Jim Wilson, president of the Isle au Haut Electric Power Company and professor emeritus of marine policy at the University of Maine, resiliency is the goal of the company’s new project, an endeavor that will wean the small island community from its 35-year-old underwater electricity cable to the mainland.

Stephen Smith, Jim Wilson
Stephen Smith, left, and Jim Wilson, right, in front of the solar modules delivered to Isle au Haut. Photo courtesy of Mainebiz.

“We are planning for the loss of the cable,” Wilson said matter-of-factly. The cable, which connects the 140 ratepayers on the island to the New England electricity grid, is well past its anticipated lifespan. The cost to replace it is prohibitively high. Instead, the Power Company will create a microgrid electricity system powered by a large field of solar panels to provide power to the entire island. The solar energy will be stored in two ways: in large super-capacitors (a new kind of battery suitable for longer-term storage) housed in a shipping container and in large tanks of heated water that will be used to heat private residences and town buildings. The entire system will be controlled by a microgrid controller, a computer system that will automatically call upon different sources of electricity — solar, the super-capacitors, a new efficient diesel generator and the old cable — in a fraction of a second.

“We are only the second company in the country to use super-capacitor batteries. The other is NorthWestern Energy in Montana, but in recent weeks a number of other companies have made similar commitments,” Wilson said.

“The Isle au Haut community has spent a lot of time discussing this,” he continued. “We’ve had three votes on it. There’s really strong support in the community. The economics of it are really strong as well. A new cable would double electricity rates [currently 32 cents per kilowatt hour]. The new solar approach will keep rates near their current level and will retain on the island the money we used to spend to buy grid-based electricity and fuel for heating.”

But even more important than the economics of the project in Wilson’s mind is the independence that the microgrid will give the island. He likens it to the resiliency of Maine’s forests or marine ecosystems.
“Prior to World War II, before DDT, every year in the forests in Maine and the North there would be ten, twenty, thirty spruce budworm infestations of ten to fifty acres. These places would get hit hard and the forest decimated. Then birds would come from all over and eat the worms up and limit the destruction,” he explained. “The result was a patchy forest, diverse in terms of species and age distribution. The lack of uniformity gave the northern forests resiliency. They were strong and stable despite losing small patches of trees occasionally.” The use of DDT resulted in a reduction in that patchiness, leading eventually to large-scale budworm infestations that could not be controlled, he said.

“Isle au Haut will be its own local electrical ecosystem, a small semi-independent patch in a large system,” Wilson said. “We can fail but if we do it’s our own fault. The other side of that coin is that if the mainland grid goes dark, Isle au Haut will be insulated from that broad-scale failure.”
The Maine lobster fishery, with which Wilson has been closely involved for decades, is similarly resilient. The Maine Legislature moved authority for managing aspects of the fishery from the Department of Marine Resources to lobstermen through the lobster zone council system in 1994, effectively localizing how the fishery was run. Lobstermen in each zone elect members to their zone council, which then can decide on matters such as how many traps are allowed each lobsterman or whether the zone is open to new entrants.

“An ecosystem tends to be very decentralized. What characterizes ecosystems is the intensity of local interactions. You can’t manage an ecosystem on a large scale,” Wilson said. “Centralization means that you can be subject to a widespread disaster.” He referred to the time in the early 1990s when Maine’s lobster fishery was still under the authority of the New England Fishery Management Council, not the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, as it is now. “Back then there was ongoing debate among the agencies about imposing uniform rules throughout the range of the stock. That meant from Hatteras to the Canadian border,” he said. Such rules, implemented on such a vast scale, would completely ignore the local variations — the patchiness — of the New England lobster fishery. The threat of such a plan, Wilson said, helped prompt the subsequent shift in management authority.

The Isle au Haut Electric Power Company has received no grant money thus far for the microgrid project. As a cooperative, the company does not turn a profit, instead operating on a break-even basis each year. Without a profit, it cannot take advantage of the 30% Investment Tax Credit offered by the federal government. So the Power Company plans to set up a new company with private investors who can take advantage of the tax credit to offset other gains. “There are two or three people right now waiting for the final cost estimates to come in. They will own the new company that we’ve formed and sell the electricity to the co-op at a set rate. That has the effect of transferring most of the benefit of the Federal tax credit to the co-op,” Wilson explained. “It will give them a fair return at the same time.” At some point in the future, the Power Company will buy out the investors and dissolve the company altogether.

Getting the microgrid project off the ground has been the collaborative effort of many people, Wilson noted. “Bills Stevens, the general manager of the Power Company, and Steven Strong, who runs Solar Design Associates in Harvard, Massachusetts, plus our board members, many of whom are retired business people — we’ve all worked together on this,” he said. Dynamic Grid Systems in Portland designed the microgrid software; the super-capacitor batteries will come from Kilowatt Labs of New York.