A century ago, Maine's strong offshore winds lifted the sails of boats that carried granite, timber, livestock, people, and vital supplies between hundreds of small island communities and the mainland. Today, the Fox Islands of North Haven and Vinalhaven, located in Penobscot Bay about 12 miles from Rockland, are two of only 15 remaining year-round island communities along the Maine coast, where electric rates are anywhere from double to seven times the national average.
Fox Islands Electric Cooperative's interest in developing wind as a source of energy began in 2001, when staff and board members began to explore the possibility of pursuing wind-power development on the islands. The following year, the cooperative received a grant for a three-year wind-resource study conducted by the University of Massachusetts Renewable Energy Research Laboratory. The site for the anemometer was 55 meters (180.5 feet) above sea level, near an abandoned quarry and on property owned by two island residents who were amenable to leasing it at extremely generous terms for the purpose of siting wind turbines.
As the cooperative was gathering this data on the islands' wind potential, its undersea cable was becoming increasingly unreliable. Through a grant and a loan from the Rural Utilities Service (RUS), the cooperative secured funding for a new cable, installed in May 2005, providing reliable infrastructure by which power could be imported to the islands or exported back to the mainland. This turned out to be a vital for developing a community wind resource: when the turbines generate more power than can be used on the islands, the power gets sold to the mainland. When the wind is not blowing, power must in turn be purchased from the mainland.
In early 2008, the cooperative formally requested assistance in pursing the wind-power project from the Island Institute, a nonprofit organization located in Rockland, Maine (www.islandinstitute.org). Philip Conkling, president of the Institute, worked with Dr. George Baker, a seasonal resident of Frenchboro Island, board member of the Swan's Island Electric Cooperative and a member of the Harvard Business School faculty, to complete a preliminary economic analysis for the Fox Islands Cooperative. This analysis included a financial model suggesting how the island communities might finance a local wind-power project by finding a tax-equity investor and selling power and renewable energy credits via the Fox Islands co-op's submarine cable.
Because such a tax investment was not available to the nonprofit Fox Islands Electric Cooperative, a separate for-profit Fox Islands Wind LLC (FIW) was formed to take advantage of the tax credits, with Dr. Baker selected as CEO. He and the Island Institute secured the commitment of a Maine company for an approximately $5 million investment in exchange for the tax credits the federal government allows to encourage investments in renewable energy projects. Permanent financing was obtained via a loan from the RUS, a division of the USDA and descended from the Rural Electrification program.
In order to present a detailed outline of a project to Fox Islands rate-payers (both year- round and summer residents), the Island Institute agreed in early 2008 to fund half of a proposed $60,000 budget with the electric co-op for a logistical feasibility analysis by an engineering company, an environmental study focused on potential avian impacts by professional ornithologists, and a visual-impact simulation.
The engineering study concluded that it was possible to deliver and erect large wind turbines on a site proposed by the electric co-op for a cost of $12-14 million. The preliminary environmental analysis showed minimal impacts to birds, wetlands and rare plants and habitats.
A detailed economic analysis suggested that the project could lower electric-power rates by 2-4 cents per kilowatt-hour for the initial 10 years and twice that amount during the second decade.
After an extensive public education and outreach campaign coordinated by the Island Institute, in July 2008 the ratepayers on both Vinalhaven and North Haven voted overwhelmingly 382-5 to authorize the Fox Islands Electric Cooperative Board to proceed with developing detailed plans to erect up to three turbines on a site in the middle of the island.
During the summer and fall of 2008, Baker and Island Institute staff raised $350,000 in pre-development loan funds from a variety of private individuals and foundations to finance additional detailed engineering, legal and environmental information required for project permits. FIW partnered with the Island Institute to raise pre-development capital for attorney fees, interconnection and environmental studies, to complete necessary local, state and federal permitting, and to secure permanent financing for insurance, operations and maintenance.
Site construction commenced on June 8, 2009. By the time more than 200 islanders gathered at the site for a groundbreaking ceremony on June 29, 2009, access roads had been cleared and blasting had begun. Foundation work took place throughout July and turbine components began to arrive on the island in August, after having been barged across Penobscot Bay. The first tower section was erected on September 1, 2009 and by the end of that month, all three turbines had been installed. The project continued on schedule as electrical work and grid tie-in took place in October. General Electric arrived on the site in early November to begin the commissioning process for the turbines, generating Fox Islands Wind's first kilowatts during its testing.
On November 17, 2009, almost 500 islanders, politicians and members of the press gathered at the project site to celebrate the successful, on-time completion of the project and on December 1, 2010, the project officially began commercial operation. Fox Islands Wind continues to receive attention throughout the state, region and country as the East Coast's largest community wind project and New England's largest coastal wind facility. It will harness the same winds that fueled 19th century Maine's coastal economy to light 21st century homes and communities, lowering and stabilizing electric rates for decades to come.