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Transmission troubles

We're all about wind power — but do we have a way to harness green energy?
By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  February 11, 2009

Late last month, Maine's second large commercial wind farm officially opened at Stetson Mountain in the eastern part of the state. The 38-turbine installation, which will produce power for the equivalent of 23,500 homes, was hailed by newspapers, businesspeople, and government officials as a step toward achieving the state's renewable-energy goals. Also at the end of January, a proposal to erect a wind-measurement device near the East End School on Munjoy Hill created some amount of Not-In-My-Backyard brouhaha right here in Portland.

Several additional projects and proposals are in the works, including ones in Aroostook County; University of Maine professors are at work developing offshore wind turbines that could be situated far into the ocean; and Maine was identified by the energy consulting firm AWS Truewind as having the most abundant wind-energy resources in New England. In other words, wind energy is booming business in Maine, where we are rich in both the physical resource, and the human capital to develop it.

But for all this potential, both in terms of the power source itself, and the brainpower behind it, Maine risks losing a lot of money — and, therefore, jobs — if the state can't figure out how to actually transport the power from the wind turbines to the electrical grid, and to our homes. Especially given that many large-scale wind projects are sited in rural areas, energy transmission is one of the biggest hurdles to renewable-energy development. And this isn't just a Maine issue. In The Economist last year, the American Wind Energy Association's policy director Rob Gramlich called transmission the "biggest long-term barrier" to national wind-energy expansion.

For evidence, look no further than the collapse, last week, of a major new transmission project in northern Maine. On Thursday, the Maine Public Utilities Commission sent back to the drawing board the Maine Power Connection (MPC) project, which would have connected Aroostook County power sources (such as wind farms) to the New England electrical grid via a new transmission line.

The rejection has negative implications for the 800-megawatt wind farm proposed by Aroostook Wind Energy, a subsidiary of the Texas-based Horizon Wind Energy company. Without the $625 million, 200-mile, 345-kilovolt MPC transmission line, the Aroostook wind farm will be a harder sell, says Brent Boyles, president of the Maine & Maritimes Corporation, which is the parent company of Maine Public Service Company, a partner in the project. Indeed, while Horizon Wind project development manager Tanuj Deora says the company remains "optimistic and hopeful" about the wind potential in northern Maine, he also admits that "we do have a bit of transmission hiccup," and "no project is a guarantee," meaning that the fate of the project is up in the air.

Watch for this to become a familiar refrain.

"They want to be here, but they don't have the access," Boyles says of prospective wind developers who balk at the lack of sufficient transmission infrastructure — lines that are too jammed to transport additional power, or else completely non-existent. (See sidebar.) Indeed, why would anyone want to invest in a project whose express goal is to create power — without a guarantee that said power will eventually end up helping someone turn on the lights? (And that's not an altruistic concern — if the power doesn't let someone turn on the lights, there's no money in the generation project.)

The obvious solution is to create more transmission lines, to carry more power from more outputs (power plants, wind farms, hydro dams, etc.) to the regional power grid, where it can be farmed out to homes and businesses. But the question becomes, who pays for these multi-million-dollar lines? If the electricity would be channeled into the New England-wide grid, should all six states, whose residents would benefit from additional power availability, help pay for it? Should the project developers pay, since they'll be using the lines? Should Maine shoulder most of the financial burden, if the line is within state boundaries? Should the utilities, like Central Maine Power and Bangor Hydro, pay? And in any of these situations, how much of that cost gets passed down to ratepayers like you and me?

Because the grid infrastructure hasn't been addressed in a comprehensive way in decades, answers to these questions don't exist. Or rather, the answer is that all those involved parties should help to pay, but the real conundrum is: How is the cost of building additional transmission lines most fairly shared out? And that's why projects like Aroostook Wind falter.

"It's going to take some more innovative solutions," Deora says of relatively nonexistent funding mechanisms, which evaluate potential projects on a case-by-case basis (as opposed to an established formula). He points to the regional transmission system in Texas, comprising a web of transmission lines, paid for by transmission companies up front and the ratepayers down the road, as "what we'd like to see" in New England.

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Related: Mountains, not windmills, Earth, Air, Fire, and Water, Break like the wind, More more >
  Topics: News Features , Alternative Energy Technology, American Wind Energy Association, East End School,  More more >
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