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June 3, 2009

Construction to start on Fox Islands wind project

by Micah Conkling

The Vinalhaven Planning Board unanimously approved the construction permit of the Fox Islands wind power project at its May 13 meeting. The vote marks the completion of all local permitting for the project.

Pending expected approval from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, construction of three, 1.5 megawatt wind turbines is scheduled to begin in mid-June on Vinalhaven

The $14.5 million General Electric turbines are expected to produce on average 11,600 megawatt-hours of electricity per year, according to Dr. George Baker, CEO of Fox Islands Wind, LLC.

Because Vinalhaven and North Haven consume roughly 10,500 megawatt-hours of electricity per year, the project positions the Fox Islands to become economically energy independent.

The Planning Board reviewed over 360 pages of material submitted over three months by Sebago Technics, a Maine-based engineering firm, the Island Institute and Fox Islands Wind.

"I could sense the community's enthusiasm for the project even before

electric co-op members voted on giving Fox Islands Electric [Cooperative] the green light to pursue it last summer," said Planning Board member Charlotte Goodhue. "A favorable 97 percent, out of almost 400 votes, was about what I expected. The wealth of information presented by Fox Islands Wind to meet the requirements of the ordinance was most impressive and helpful, making it easier to process the application."

The complete application included electrical and foundation designs, soil characteristics, wind resource analysis, environmental reports, zoning and tax maps, wind turbine dimension information, physical and virtual visual simulations of the turbines in operation, utility notification, foundations and electrical design engineering considerations, public safety reports and a fire program approved by the fire chief.

Members of the Fox Islands Electric Cooperative showed tremendous support for this venture. On July 28, 2008 co-op members voted 383 to 5 in favor of the project (see "With overwhelming support, search is on for wind turbines, Working Waterfront, September 2008).

Since then, the process to obtain permits and legal agreements for The Fox Islands wind project has been complicated.

The co-op and Fox Islands Wind sought federal environmental review, approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, certification from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, agreements with Central Maine Power, and the Planning Board's consent.

Financing for the turbine construction has also been intricate. At the time of this writing, Fox Islands Wind was still waiting on the confirmation of a $9.5 million loan from the federal Rural Utilities Service (RUS).

The remaining $5 million from which construction funds will be drawn come from passive investors who will finance the project in return for federal tax credits.

Government officials, including Gov. John Baldacci, Speaker of the House Hannah Pingree (D-North Haven), Congresswoman Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) and others, have been invited to a groundbreaking ceremony to recognize the accomplishments of the Fox Island Electric Cooperative and the Vinalhaven and North Haven communities in achieving this important milestone. When the date of this ceremony becomes final, Working Waterfront will provide an online update.

Foundations will be poured in July, the segmented crane will arrive in mid-August, and the turbine parts are expected soon afterwards, "hopefully in late August, but possibly as late as Labor Day," said Baker. The co-op and Fox Island Wind have coordinated with Sebago Technics on infrastructure requirements and are working with Cianbro construction and consultant EOS Ventures LLC, of Hancock, Mass., on the turbine transportation requirements.

The turbines will mitigate the sometimes-onerous system of powering the North Haven and Vinalhaven with electricity from the mainland. Apart from periodic power outages resulting from general wear and tear on their submarine electricity cable, residents of Vinalhaven and North Haven pay one-half times more for power than do mainland residents.

However, the Fox Islands' atypical system is critical to the wind power project. Because the submarine electricity cable that serves the islands from the mainland can handle electricity both to and from the Vinalhaven-based grid center, Vinalhaven and North Haven can export energy. The total output the three towers are projected to produce yearly will allow the islands to sell their 1,100 megawatt-hour surplus to Central Maine Power, their electricity supplier, and stabilize island electric bills.

The turbines will insulate The Fox Islands from energy market fluctuations. George Baker, CEO of Fox Islands Wind, expressed enthusiasm for the economics side of the wind project. "We've designed the project to be almost perfectly hedged for the next 20 years." Essentially, Baker explained, "we're using the grid as our battery."

Vinalhaven Town Manager Marjorie Stratton affirmed that the turbines will produce enough annual energy for both Vinalhaven and North Haven. "We've been seeing spikes in electricity prices for some time," she said. "I think [the wind power project] is doing the right thing for the town."

Completion of the Fox Island wind project will mean that Vinalhaven and North Haven will be energy independent in an economic sense: while the towns will need to continue purchasing energy from the mainland during the summer months via its cable, the sale of their excess wind energy from nighttime and off-season periods will offset-and hopefully exceed-such expense.

Micah Conkling is participating in the Island Institute's summer student-reporting program and is the son of Institute President Philip Conkling.

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