All posts by benjaminalgeo

Maine’s diesel islands find a role model, 3,500 miles away

This post was co-written by Maren Granstrom; Communications Associate at the Island Institute, and Ben Algeo; Diesel Island Fellow for Monhegan and Matinicus.  It is also posted on the Island Institute’s blog (

“I decided, after reading about the 15 Maine Islands, that we’re most similar to Matinicus,” said AlexAnna Salmon, Village Council President of Igiugig, Alaska and speaker at the Island Energy Conference. “We are not an island, but we are like an island in that you can only get there by air charter.”

Igiugig, Alaska, population 70, isn’t a place you’d expect to have so much in common with remote coastal Maine. But the similarities line up, especially when it comes to energy: diesel for generators delivered via long boat or plane ride; a town reliant on a microgrid and a tiny power company; some of the highest electricity prices in the nation at $0.60–0.80 cents/kWh (the U.S. average is $0.13).

Energy progress in Igiugig, Alaska

In recent years, Salmon has led the village in taking big steps to reduce their diesel consumption. “We decided that we’re rural, we’re independent, we can attack this on all fronts,” she said. They began weatherizing old homes, fixed up public buildings, started greenhouses, and put in wood boilers, horizontal-axis wind turbines, and some solar thermal systems. But the biggest move was opening their clean, fast, and salmon-rich river to hydrokinetic testing. In 2014 and 2015, Portland, Maine-based Ocean Renewable Power Company deployed a massive “RivGen” unit near the village, hooked directly into their grid.

The device isn’t yet commercialized, so Iguigig needed extra funding to get it running. “With our limited money, we needed partners, and that’s where ORPC came in,” AlexAnna explained. They applied for project financing and selected the Kvichak River as a test site.

The project, it turns out, was a success. “Over 2 MWh was delivered to onshore stations, and over two seasons there was no impact to fish,” Salmon said. “In a three day period, 1.2 million salmon swam by the device. This was providing about half of our power. If this device were commercialized, it would displace 18,000 gallons of diesel and save us $133,000/year.”

Salmon explained that while the hydropower device may not be a long-term solution, it has been helpful for their village all the same. “The public has now developed a mentality of ‘there’s no harm in trying and if we will get some economic benefits, either short term or long term, then why not?’”

Permanent solutions back East?

New England islands are starting their own projects to reduce fossil fuel consumption. On the day following Salmon’s address, Island Energy Conference participants travelled to Star Island, NH, where a solar array now generates about 50% of the island’s power. On Monhegan Island, ME, energy efficiency has played an important role in lowering household energy costs.  An LED group purchase in the Spring of 2015 is expected to save ratepayers on the island about $15,000 annually.  Additionally, the Monhegan power company is replacing its old, inefficient diesel generators with fuel-efficient microturbines, and will install some solar generation to reduce the load.

Residents of Matinicus, Igiugig’s unofficial sister island, are up against several challenges. The high cost of generating electricity with diesel generators is spread over a small—and shrinking—base of customers.  Additionally, the generators themselves are losing efficiency with age, and line losses (electricity consumed by the grid before it reaches buildings on the island) add additional costs that must be covered. These issues hit home for a lot of folks on the island this summer, when the power company was forced to raise its base rate (the price of power, minus most fuel costs) by 15%.

Like Monhegan, Matinicus is also using energy efficiency to address rising energy costs.  An LED group purchase there is expected to provide about $5,000 in annual savings, and another round is planned.   While these savings help, a longer-term strategy is needed.  With the falling cost of photovoltaic (“PV”) panels, solar seems like an enticing option, and a community-scale project would allow the whole island to benefit. The island’s first assessor, Clayton Philbrook, is leading the charge, but it’s not a straightforward process on an island 22 miles out to sea with a population of fewer than 100 people. Commercial prospects are limited for such a tiny market, and after a few grants didn’t come through, islanders have expanded their search to include private financing and other approaches.

Clayton Philbrook, and Ben Algeo (co-author of this post) present on a panel at the Island Energy Conference in South Portland, ME.
Clayton Philbrook, and Ben Algeo (co-author of this post) present on a panel at the Island Energy Conference in South Portland, ME.

Moving forward

Could Matinicus be the site for a project like Igiugig’s? While there are no specific proposals in the works, Matinicus does have some interesting prospects. In 2015, the Governor’s Energy Office released the Maine Hydropower Study, which had a section devoted to wave energy. In that section, Matinicus was identified as a “prioritized wave site.” The report points out that a wave power test project off Matinicus would take advantage of a strong resource, and could help “address [a] community with [a] high cost of power.”

No matter how Matinicus decides to tackle its energy issues, the path to energy efficiency and manageable costs is a long one. Just like in Igiugig, it requires strong leadership and a focus on community ownership. “It’s been grueling, exhausting, it feels like we have come so far,” said AlexAnna. “But we have only just begun. We have a more confident population that is willing to set a goal and make it happen. As a leader, it’s been important to inform the public about what’s going on, and to manage the expectations of the community.

“Igiugig doesn’t have a loud voice in government. Demonstrating new technology successfully, we now stand in a position to help inform our leaders about what works and what doesn’t, and what is culturally and environmentally appropriate.”

Igiugig and AlexAnna Salmon may not have known the outcome of the RivGen trial, or have even imagined it was possible a few years ago. But the community is willing to try new approaches to tackling their energy challenges, and they are moving, step by step, in the right direction.


Diesel Islands in the Media

Monhegan and Matinicus have been all over the news in the last few days.  Here are two recent pieces related to energy on the Diesel Islands:

The first piece comes from Tux Turkel, the Portland Press Herald’s energy reporter, and gives an overview of the LED bulk purchase programs I’ve been running on Matinicus and Monhegan.

The next piece comes from MPBN’s Susan Sharon, and covers how the Isles of Shoals (Star and Appledore) are transitioning towards renewable energy, and how it relates to Maine’s diesel-powered islands.

Happy reading!

Trip Log: Vinalhaven and Camden Hills Regional High School

There’s a big difference between hearing about something, and experiencing it for yourself.

This is particularly true when it comes to renewable energy. On Monhegan, residents have heard all sorts of things about different types of renewable energy, particularly wind.  In 2009, a 100kW wind turbine was proposed for the island, to combat rising energy costs and lessen the environemntal impacts of energy production on the island.  In the discussions that followed this proposal, there were a lot of concern about what it would be like to live next to a wind turbine, including the noise and visual impacts, as well as the impact it would have on the migratory birds that frequent the island.  This project never came to be, but when the University of Maine proposed a floating offshore wind demonstration project 2.5 miles off the southern tip of the island, a lot of the same issues came up.

Similarly, there has been a lot of interest recently in adopting solar power on the island.  Much of this interest has been based on the fact that installed costs for PV solar arrays have dropped siginificantly in the last few years. In fact, the power company is planning to install 13kW of solar capacity on the roof of the power station, as part of a larger project.

That’s why the Monhegan Community Energy Action Team (run by Jes Stevens, Mandy Metrano, Marian Chioffi, Chris Smith, and coordinated by Ben Algeo, the author of this blog), along with the Island Institute’s Community Energy Director and co-facilitor of the Islanded Grid Resource Center Suzanne MacDonald, decided to take the Monhegan School, and a few chaperones, on a field trip to see renewable energy installations in other places, specifically Camden Hills Regional High School (CHRHS) and Vinalhaven, and learn how those projects came to be, and what affect they’ve had on the surrounding community.

Camden Hills 

The first stop on the field trip was CHRHS, which had recently installed a wind turbine, and even more recently, a solar array. The wind turbine was of particular interest to the Monhegan visitors, because it was the exact same model that was proposed for the island in 2009. The students, who had visited Monhegan’s power station earlier in the day, noted that the turbine was quieter than the diesel engines that currently provide the island with power, but that it made a “different kind of noise.”

The Northern Reliability 100 Turbine at Camden Hills Regional High School
The Northern Reliability 100kW turbine at Camden Hills Regional High School
CHRHS's Keith Rose shows Monhegan students the inside of the Camden Hills wind turbine.
CHRHS’s Keith Rose shows Monhegan students the inside of the Camden Hills wind turbine.

After visiting the turbine, the group went inside and listened to Keith Rose, the Director of Facilities at CHRHS, talk about how their solar array works.  At 155kW, the array has a larger nameplate capacity than the turbine, and it was pointed out that an installation of that size would produce more power than Monhegan could use, whereas it only produces a fraction of the power needed to run the high school.  The group also thought about why the array had to face to the south (so that it would face the sun whenever it was in the sky), and learned why Camden ultimately decided to pursue the project (falling panel prices). Keith also talked aboutthe school’s decision to adopt LED lighting.  The students compared the lights in the classroom to the lights they had in their school, which, unlike the LEDs, hum and flicker.


The next day, the group hopped on the 8:45 ferry to Vinalhaven, and when the boat landed an hour and forty-five minutes later, we headed over to the Vinalhaven School.

Getting off the ferry to Vinalhaven. Photo via Allison Gold.
Getting off the ferry to Vinalhaven. Photo via Allison Gold.

At the Vinalhaven School, the kids built their own wind turbines with Ms. Cohn’s sixth grade science class, using common household items, like pie plates, note cards, dowels, and foam.  One of the turbines worked so well it lifted a dixie cup “bucket” tied to a string!

Building Turbine at VH School
Kip and Brownell help Vinalhaven Middle School students build their own wind turbine.

After building our own turbines, we went to see the real thing. The Fox Islands Wind project, located near the center of Vinalhaven, consists of three GE 1.5 MW turbines, which supply Vinalhaven and North Haven with power, and sell it back to the mainland grid when the turbines produce more than the islands need.

One of the GE 1.5 MW Fox Islands Wind turbines.  This turbine stands 286 feet to the hub (the center of the blades).
One of the GE 1.5 MW Fox Islands Wind turbines. This turbine stands 286 feet to the hub (the center of the blades).
The auhor looks up at one of the Fox Islands Wind Turbines as Alana Flanagan, Vinalhaven School Fellow, looks on. Photo via Maddey Gates.
Vinalhaven School Fellow Alana Flanagan and the author admire one of the Fox Islands Wind turbines.  Photo via Maddey Gates.

At the wind turbine site, Suzanne MacDonald and Chip Farrington, the manager of the Fox Islands Electric Cooperative, gave everyone a rundown of how the project came to be, and some of the challenges they had to overcome.  He talked about some of the logisitical challenges that they had overcome, including having to use two cranes, one to erect the towers, and another to build that crane.  He also talked about steps they took to reduce the noise from the turbines, including modifying the blade design so that they were quieter, by mimicking the design of an owl’s wing.

The Monhegan group talked about how power is created on Monhegan, and the kids imitated the noise of the diesel generators for the group (in other words, they yelled “WHAAAAAAAABBBB” at the top of their lungs).

Monhegan and Vinalhaven students listen to Chip Farrington talk abou the Fox Islands Wind project.
Monhegan and Vinalhaven students listen to Chip Farrington talk abou the Fox Islands Wind project.

After Chip gave some background, he brought the group over to the base of one of the turbines, and opened it up.  Everyone filed in, one by one, and marveled at the switchgear and computer, and tried to peer up all the way to the top ofthe turbine.  The noise was much more significant inside the turbine, and one person remarked that it was “sort of like being inside a spaceship.”

2015-10-20 12.47.25
The computer inside the base of one of the Fox Islands Wind turbines.
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Monhegan School board member Jes Stevens admires the inside of one of the Fox Islands Wind turbines as Chip Farrington looks on.

After a quick group photo session….

Full Group at FIW

…the group headed back to the Vinalhaven School for a debrief session and one final wind activity.  In the debrief, Ms. Cohn talked through the observations that students made, some of the challenges faced by Fox Islands Wind in building the turbines, and the strategies they used to overcome those challenges.

For our last activity, we went outside and flew a kite.  Not just any old kite though, this one had ten “streamers” (they were actually caution tape) tied to the string every 10 – 15 feet. Once the kite was up in the air, the kids made observations about how the different streamers were moving at different heights.  They noticed that the higher streamers were pulled out in a straight line, whereas the lower ones would droop peroidically as the wind dropped.  This demonstrated why wind turbines need to be so high above the ground: the wind is stronger, and more consistent.

For more on this activity, visit:

The author running a test flight of the streamer kite on Beech Hill, two days before the trip.
The author running a test flight of the streamer kite on Beech Hill, two days before the trip.

That ended the wind portion of the trip, and the Vinalhaven students had to go to their next class.  However, the Monhegan group still had a few other places to go.  The stop was at the Ivan Calderwood Homestead, an elder care facility on the island with a solar installation. The group gathered behind the building, next to the panels, and talked to residents Maddy Hildings, Roy Heisler, Priscilla Rosen, and Barbara Davis about how energy has changed on the island during their lifetimes.  The residents talked about how they used to have “hour power”, where they’d have an hour of power, and then North Haven would have an hour, how the power station used to be down on the harbor, and some of the controversy that arose when a submarine cable was installed.  We also discussed solar technology, and Del Webster talked about why he decided to install solar there.  He als talked about some of the energy efficiency work done at the building.

Kids at Elder Care Solar Panel
Arielle and Brownell play under the solar panels at the Ivan Claderwood Homestead
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Vinalhaven Elder Care Fellow Maddey Gates introduces some of the Ivan Calderwood Homestead residents to the Monhegan group.

After the visit to the elder care facility, the group took a trip to the Vinalhaven Historical Society, where we saw exhibits on Vinalhaven’s mining industry, the old school, and a whole lot more.  Finally, the last stop of the day was the island’s infamous candy store, the Vinalhaven Candy Company.  With the kids all hopped up on sugar, we got on the last boat to Rockland, made thank you cards, and played Ninja on the top deck.

Thanks to everyone involved, it was a great trip!

Recap: Monhegan LED Information Session

This Wednesday (5/6/15), the Island Institute and the Monhegan Plantation Power District (MPPD) held an informational session on LED lighting at the Monhegan School.  We were joined by Mike Kurt, of Gilman Electrical Supply, and Walter Cary, of OSRAM Sylvania.

That's Walter (Sylvania) on the left, and Mike (Gilman) on the right.
That’s Walter (Sylvania) on the left, and Mike (Gilman) on the right.

We met Mike and Walter when they got off the boat at 11:30, and headed up to the Trailing Yew for lunch, after making a quick stop to look in at the lighting setup in the Island Inn.  We talked about the outlook for Efficiency Maine business incentives over lunch, and then headed over to the Monhegan Museum to look at some of the plans museum curator Jenn Pye had for updating her lighting system.

The next stop was the Monhegan School, where the kids and I were having a pizza party to celebrate a project we did to monitor their energy use.  They saved $87.50 on the school’s power bill over just a month, using conservation techniques like shutting off lights they didn’t need, unplugging the refrigerator over vacation, and turning down the heater at night.

Once school let out, we had to scramble to set up the LED information session.   Marian Chioffi, the owner/operator of the Trailing Yew and MPPD’s bookkeeper, kicked things off with a quick overview of a project she has been working on, to create a comprehensive energy plan for Monhegan.  The purpose of this plan is to create a vision for what the future of energy on Monhegan will look like, and use that vision as a way to focus people’s efforts on the island around energy towards a common goal.

After Marian spoke, I talked a bit about some of the work being done by the Monhegan Community Energy Action Team to teach the students in the school about the importance of energy conservation.  Timothy and Georgia (both students at the school) talked about how they monitored their energy use and adopted specific conservation techniques to save the school money on its power bill, and how they measured the light levels in the school to make sure that they had the right number of lights on.

Jes Stevens, a schoolboard member, talked about some of the weatherization work that has been done at the school.   She also talked about an upcoming LED retrofit in the school to replace the overhead fluorescent lights.  This, combined with the conservation techniques that the kids learned will help significantly lower the school’s power bill.

The next person to speak was Chris Smith, the grid operator on Monhegan.  He talked about a trip he took last year to Naushon Island, south of Cape Cod.  Like Monhegan, Naushon has primarily relied on diesel fuel to generate its power.  However, a few years ago, the Forbes family, which owns the island, began to take aggressive measures to reduce their diesel consumption.  Chris talked about how they started off by replacing all of the light bulbs on the island with more efficient CFLs.  The next year, they replaced the refrigerators on the island, and swapped them out with energy efficient models.  The next few years after that, they made significant upgrades to their electricity grid, and then, finally, they installed a PV system.

Chris Smith of MPPD explains how Naushon accomplished a 75% reduction in diesel fuel use.
Chris Smith of MPPD explains how Naushon accomplished a 75% reduction in diesel fuel use.

While all this work was going on, they were tracking power production at the plant, so they could see, each year, how much their power consumption dropped, and, importantly, how much their diesel consumption dropped.  We had a graph of these numbers, which showed that, after all was said and done, their diesel consumption dropped by about 75%. Chris was eager to replecate that work on Monhegan.

That’s where I came in.  See, Naushon is a privately owned island.  It was very easy for them to do some of the initial efficiency work, because they could just go into each house, change out the bulbs, swap out the refrigerators, and no one could tell them otherwise.  Monhegan, however, is a community of individual property owners and renters, who would not be very appreciative of someone coming in and changing out their lightbulbs, or telling them they had to get rid of their refrigerator.

So I explained how my project on Monhegan basically consists of three steps:

Step 1: Inventory as many houses on the island as possible to see what kinds of appliances they have, how old those appliances are, what kinds of lights they have, and other efficiency-related data.

Step 2: Take this data, and see what the most pressing needs in the community for energy efficiency improvements are.  This information is then presented to retailers to negotiate a bulk purchase deal, and to funders at the Island Institute who might want to fund efficiency work on Monhegan or Matinicus. This bulk discount and the funds raised are used to run a bulk purchase program, to make energy efficiency improvements as simple and cost effective as possible.

Step 3: Step 2 is repeated until Monhegan’s load is brought down to a degree sufficient to size a renewable installation.

Now that I have performed inventories in over 100 buildings on the island, we have decided to kick off an LED bulk buy.  The folks over at Gilman electric agreed to mark down the price of a wide array of LED bulbs, including A-line omnidirectional bulbs, reflectors, flood lights, and candelabra bulbs. The Island Institute has additionally marked down the price of 11 Watt A-Line bulb, from $2.50 per bulb, to $1.00 per bulb. I showed how replacing one 60 Watt incandescent bulb with an LED could save a homeowner $30.00 a year in electricty costs.  Doug Boynton asked if the savings from a CFL were comprable over the same time period.  I explained that they were, however over a longer period, the savings were less significant with CFLs, and they did not last as long.  There’s also environemntal concerns about disposing CFLs, which contain small amounts of mercury.

60a19LEDBRDG a8fb0225-0df9-4f57-b3b8-d07b7a2a86e6250x401
11 Watt A19 Bulb from Sylvania

The sign up for this bulk buy ends on May 20, so it’s important to get order forms in ASAP.  Copies are available at the Post Office, or you can email me at  I will be out on Monhegan for the rest of May, and will bring the bulbs out to distribute during the last week of May and the first week of June. I can also come to your house and install the bulbs for you.  If you would like me to do that, please indicate on the order form for me to contact you.

After I described how the bulk purchase program would work, Mike and Walter fielded questions about the specific types of bulbs.  There were a lot of questions about whether or not the color of the light cast would be different. Walter and Mike explained how technology has improved the coloringof LED lights over recent years, so that they now imitate the warm color of incandescent bulbs.  They also showed a 60 Watt replacement LED plugged in next to comprable halogens on the stage at the school, to show what the light would look like.

Overall, the meeting went really well.  I’m looking forward to seeing how many bulbs we can swap out in May!

Trip Log: Isles of Shoals

Six miles off the coast of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, sits the Isles of Shoals, a set of small islands and ledges just over 200 acres in size. The largest of the Isles of Shoals is Appledore, which is home to the Shoals Marine Laboratory, an operation run by the University of New Hampshire and Cornell University. About a quarter mile directly to the west sits Star Island, which is home to an event center owned by the Star Island Corporation, a non-profit associated with the United Church of Christ.  Between the two, connected to Star by a small breakwater, sits Smuttynose, the namesake of a well known craft beer company, and the site of arguably the most famous ax murder spree in New England.

(Disclaimer: This blog has nothing to do with beer or ax murders. Sorry!)

I was lucky enough to make a trip out to the Isles of Shoals last Friday (4/3/15) with a few folks from the diesel islands and elsewhere.

We departed from Portsmouth early Friday morning in a boat driven by Marshall Frye, of the Star Island Corporation.  We made our way past the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, and out the Piscataqua River, towards the Isles of Shoals.

Portsmouth Naval Shipyard
Portsmouth Naval Shipyard
Portsmouth Naval Shipyard
Portsmouth Naval Shipyard
Portsmouth Naval Shipyard
Portsmouth Naval Shipyard

After about twenty minutes, we arrived at Star Island.  We were surprised to see that we weren’t the only ones out there; a crew from the Shoals Marine Lab were also out on the R/V John M. Kingsbury. 

R/V John M. Kingsbury
R/V John M. Kingsbury

After docking the boat, we were given a quick tour of the buildings on Star Island.  We then headed to the backside of the island to see a recently installed 130kW solar array. This array, at the time of it’s completion (April 22, 2014), was the largest off-grid solar array in New England.

130 kW solar array on Star Island
130 kW solar array on Star Island

The array covers about a half-acre, and consists of over 400 panels.  If you look closely at the picture above, you can see that the panels are sitting on blocks of concrete.  This was a solution manufactured on the fly, after the panel installers were unable to successfully drill into rock ledge.  The blocks of concrete are basically a waste product from a bridge construction project, and were acquired on the cheap to be used as anchors for the panels.

This array provides a good deal of power to the island, but a complex back up system is required to insure uninterrupted electricity supply.  Most of this system is housed in a shed behind the main building on the island.  This system is pretty complicated, so it helps to break it down into its components:

Generator:  The island currently uses one diesel generator to provide power when the sun isn’t shining.   This is a relatively new Tier 3 (meaning it complies with tier 3 of the EPA’s Clean Power Plan regulations for diesel generators) Kohler.

Kohler Generator on Star Island
Kohler Generator on Star Island
Part of the emissions control on the tier three generator.
Part of the emissions control on the tier three generator.

Charge Controllers: These do exactly what they sound like they do: control the charge going into the batteries.  This keeps the batteries from overcharging, which can cause serious problems.

The Star Island facility requires 30 charge controllers.
The Star Island facility requires 30 charge controllers.

Batteries: The batteries are the backbone of the entire system.  They offer 600 kWhs of storage, and can be fed by both the generator and the solar panels.  They are usually kept at about half charge.

One row of the battery bank.  These are standard lead acid batteries (just like what most cars have), which are projected to last about 8 years.
One row of the battery bank. These are standard lead acid batteries (just like what most cars have), which are expected to last about 8 years.

Inverters: The inverters draw power off the batteries to feed the distribution system.  They “invert” the electricity current, meaning they take it from DC (12 Volts) to AC(120 Volts).  This part of the system is actually very complex, there is a whole series of inverters that do various different things.  My electrical engineering expertise is pretty limited, so I’ll leave it at that, and say that there are probably some really good resources out there thatcan explain this concept better than I can.

This flow chart helps explain how this whole system works.

The system on Star powers a hotel and a handful of associated buildings, a reverse osmosis water desalinator, and a waste treatment facility, all of which are interesting projects in their own right.

Reverse Osmosis System on Star Island
Reverse Osmosis System on Star Island

After a tour of these facilities, we headed over to Appledore.  We were pretty pressed for time at this point, but we still wanted to see what we could of the Appledore system.

The Appledore Solar array.  This system is much smaller than the one on Star Island.
The Appledore Solar array. This system is much smaller than the one on Star Island.
Battery bank on Appledore.
Battery bank on Appledore.
Inverters on Appledore.
Inverters on Appledore.

After a quick tour of Appledore, we hopped on the boat back to New Hampshire, and then debriefed over lunch at Loco Coco’s Tacos in Kittery.

It was interesting to draw comparisons between the Isles of Shoals and Maine’s diesel islands.  For example, both are completely independent from the mainland grid, and, as a result, both have historically relied on diesel generators to supply their power.  The Isles of Shoals have dealt with the same issues Monhegan and Matinicus deal with: high energy costs, issues with safety and the transporation and storage of diesel fuel, and environmental effects of diesel generation.  Now that they are less reliant on diesel fuel, some of these issues are less prominent.

However, there are some differences.  Star and Appledore are both privately owned, and fully shut down in the winter, whereas Monhegan and Matinicus are year-round communities.  This means a couple of things:

  1. The load profile is different.  The fact that Star and Appledore shut down in the winter means that they need hardly any generation for that period of time.  This makes the solar arrays, which produce more power in the summer, a very good fit for the islands.  This also means that their generators don’t run all year round, which exempts them from certain regulations.
  2. The Isles of shoals don’t need to worry about the kind of public concerns that come up when dealing with construction in communities like Monhegan and Matinicus.  If they want to do a project on Star Island, all they need is the approval of the board of the Star Island Corporation, and the nessesary permits.

Still, the systems on Star and Appledore are a good blueprint for what might work on Monhegan or Matinicus. It’s also helpful to see what kinds of issues other places run into when installing these kinds of systems, so that those problems won’t be repeated when work is done elsewhere.

What about the waves?

This February, the Governor’s Energy Office (GEO) released an updated version of the Maine Hydropower Study.  The Press Herald and the Bangor Daily both covered this release, noting that it found only about 56 MW of capacity available for development across the state, and touching on some of the controversy around the 100 MW cap on the state’s renewable portfolio standard.   I know what you’re thinking: what do these riveting topics have to do with Monhegan or Matinicus?

Actually, quite a bit.  No, I’m not talking about building a dam on the Meadow or the Ice Pond.  You see, the Maine Hydropower Study didn’t just address conventional hydropower, it also addresses marine and hydrokinetic power, which includes wave, tidal, and “river kinetic” (a less productive form of conventional hydropower that also has a much smaller environmental impact) power.  The section on wave power starts on page 2-47, and it’s here that the diesel islands take the main stage.

The report states that:

“the most promising areas in Maine include, but are not limited to, the following locations:

  • Monhegan
  • Matinicus
  • Eastern Shelf (Isle au Haut, Swan’s Island, Frenchboro)
  • Casco Bay region”

The report cites the high cost of electricity and abundant wave resource off both islands as factors that make them ideal for future wave energy development.  Monhegan is particularly appealing to potential developers because it has a slightly larger customer base and more up-to-date electricity infrastructure than Matinicus.  The possibility of co-locating a wave power site with the offshore wind site also makes Monhegan an attractive option for wave-power developers.

The Technology

So what would a wave power installation off Monhegan or Matinicus look like?  There are a few different designs used today.

Point Absorber Buoy

A point absorber buoy is basically a buoy that floats on or below the surface of the ocean, and moves up and down as waves pass underneath it.  This up-and-down motion turns an underwater generator, which produces electricity.  The silent video below demonstrates how this technology works:

The Department of Energy’s Tethys program, which catalogs environmental risk information on various offshore energy projects, lists a few risk factors for point source buoys:

“[Electromagnetic Field] generated by electrical transmission cables and acoustic of these devices may be a concern for marine organisms. The presence of the buoys may affect fish, marine mammals, and birds as potential minor collision risk and roosting sites. Potential also exists for entanglement in mooring lines. Energy removed from the waves may also affect the shoreline, resulting in a recommendation that sites remain a considerable distance from the shore.”

Surface Attenuator (Line Absorber)

A surface attenuator is the most common technology used to harness wave energy today.  These devices look like long snakes on the water, and consist of a series of joints that move up and down as waves pass underneath them.  This motion drives hydraulic motors that run generators, which produce electricity.  The silent video below demonstrates how this process works:

Tethys notes that environmental concerns with surface attenuators are similar to those associated with point absorber buoys, with the added risk of organisms being pinched in the joints.

Wave Arms

I’m calling these devices “wave arms” because they don’t really have a universal name.  A wave arm has three components: a buoy, an arm, and a pump, which connects to a generator.  The buoy moves up and down, the energy is transferred through the arm, which pushes the pump, which in turn powers the generator.  These designs used vary slightly from project to project, but the concept is essentially the same. The video below explains how an installation in Brazil works:

Wavestar in Denmark is also working on a similar design, which you can read about at

Overtopping Device

An overtopping device collects water from waves splashing over the top of the device (hence the name) in a reservoir, and uses the potential energy from that reservoir to run turbines.  The video below shows one prototype of an overtopping device, installed in Denmark.

Tethys lists the following environmental concerns for overtopping devices:

“Floating devices will have environmental concerns about the mooring system affecting benthic organisms, organisms becoming entangled, or EMF effects produced from subsea cables. There is also some concern regarding low levels of turbine noise and wave energy removal affecting the nearfield habitat.”

Oscillating Water Column

An oscillating water column captures incoming waves in a “capture chamber.”  The force of these incoming waves displaces air, spinning a turbine located on the back of the device.

Image via Tethys

According to Tethys, “Significant noise is produced as air is pushed through the turbines, potentially affecting birds and other marine organisms within the vicinity of the device. There is also concern about marine organisms getting trapped or entangled within the air chambers.”

Oscillating Wave Surge Converter

Oscillating wave surge converters sit on the seabed with a flap extending upward from the base.  These devices convert the energy collected by the motion of the flap relative to the stationary base.   The silent video below shows how one of these devices works.

According to Tethys, “environmental concerns include minor risk of collision, artificial reefing near the fixed point, EMF effects from subsea cables, and energy removal effecting sediment transport.”

The Economics

While all the aforementioned products are interesting, none of them are what you might call “market ready.”  Only a handful of wave energy prototypes exist in the world today, and the ones that do are little more than glorified research projects.  One of the first high profile wave projects, the Pelamis at Agucadoura wave farm in Portugal, was online for all of two months before being taken down for technical and financial reasons.  The industry outlook has not changed much since then, Bloomberg continues to downgrade its projections for wave power capacity, and investors are increasingly wary of wave projects.

This is probably the biggest reason why you wont see any wave projects go up near Monhegan or Matinicus any time in the near future.  These projects are costly, prone to failure, and the general market outlook is bleak.  That doesn’t mean that it will never happen though.  The resource is there, and if the market ever bounces back, developers may turn their eyes to Monhegan and Matinicus.

The Diesel Drop: What Falling Crude Prices Mean for Maine’s Diesel Powered Islands.

Early in the fall of 2014, the bottom fell out of crude oil prices, dramatically altering fossil fuel markets around the world, and bringing with a host of social, economic, environmental, and geopolitical consequences, some good, some not so good. In Russia, falling oil prices, coupled with sanctions from the west, triggered the collapse of the Ruble.  Other economies that rely heavily on gas and oil production, such as Venezuela and Saudi Arabia, have also taken a hit.  Here in the US, consumers benefited from a drop in prices for heating oil, gasoline, and other petroleum products, while some oil producers were forced to suspend operations that weren’t profitable with such low prices.

In Maine, consumers saw a huge benefit, as prices dropped just before winter, when most people rely on heating oil to stay warm.   Falling oil prices also lowered standard offer electricity rates for Emera and CMP customers, due to the presence of oil fired generators on the ISO New England grid.  This come as a welcome relief in the region with the highest energy costs in country, although a recent Bangor Daily News editorial noted that this relief is only temporary.

Similarly, on Maine’s diesel powered islands, low oil prices are generally a good thing, mainly because they translate to lower diesel costs for generation and transportation, and slightly lower heating costs, depending on what fuel a person is using. In fact, it could be argued that a drop in crude prices disproportionately benefits Monhegan and Matinicus, because the two communities are so heavily dependent upon oil products.  Not only do both islands rely on diesel fuel to keep the lights on, they also both rely, to some degree, on lobster fishing to sustain their respective economies.  Lobster fishing requires a lobster boat, of course, and unless we’re talking about an early 20th century Smack, a lobster boat requires diesel fuel.  Therefore, the price of diesel can have a significant impact on a lobsterman’s bottom line, and in the aggregate, can have an effect on the local economy as well. (i.e. the lobsterman who spends less on diesel has more money to pay his sternman, buy groceries, and renovate his house.)

...or get that hot tub boat he always wanted.   source:
…or get that hot tub boat he always wanted.

Furthermore, if crude oil prices stay relatively low through the summer (as they are expected to do), it could help boost tourism on both islands.  If people on the mainland spend less money on fuel, they have more money to spend on other things, like say, a day trip to Monhegan, or more bread at Eva Murray’s bakery.  Low fuel prices, along with a strong national economic forecast is generally good news for economies that rely on tourism.

...and bad news for anyone driving through Wiscasset. Source: NY Times
…and bad news for anyone driving through Wiscasset.
Source: NY Times

So lower fuel prices means less money going off island to pay for fuel, and more money coming from tourism.  What’s not to love?

For one, as I previously indicated, this is only temporary.  I’m not saying that fuel prices are going to jump back to $4.00/gallon overnight, but I’m not saying that’s impossible either.  It’s not a matter of “if” crude prices rise again, but more a matter of “when” and “how quickly” they rise. Oil prices are variable, and dependent on a vast array of different factors, and like any commodity, they are cyclical.  The market is down now because production is high, driven mainly by high US output and equally high output from OPEC countries, but the low price has caused many US drilling operations to temporarily suspend production, and keeping up production in Saudi Arabia is putting a large dent in the country’s coffers.  This means, barring any mitigating circumstances (which is always a possibility) global crude supply will eventually start to fall, bringing prices back up.

The US Energy Information Administration predicts that US fuel prices will bottom out in the next few months, and then start to climb slowly in the spring.

Diesel Prices

If this prediction is to be believed, heating oil prices will remain low for the rest of the winter, and wont start climbing until late in 2016.

Source: US Energy Information Administration
Source: US Energy Information Administration

This slow, steady uptick in fuel prices is ideal, because it means prices will stay relatively low for a while. That means that the diesel islands will continue to benefit from low fuel prices for most of the summer (aka the tourist season). Of course, this is far from guaranteed, and any number of things could happen between now and then to affect global crude prices, and just as a quick drop in prices can be extremely beneficial to the islands, high prices can also be very damaging. The diesel islands live and die by the price of fuel, which isn’t ideal, because they have little to no control over what that price will be.  They have to take what they can get.

That’s why the situation that the islands are currently in represents a great opportunity.  The islands might not have much control over the price of  the oil products they consume, but they do have control over how much of it they consume.  Low fuel prices can free up money to be spent on other projects to help lower individual fuel consumption. Now is a great time to…

  • Switch out light bulbs and appliances for more efficient models.  Anyone on Monhegan or Matinicus who would like to do that is strongly urged to email me at  I will be making arrangements for a community-wide bulk lighting swap out on Monhegan sometime in late spring, and on Matinicus in the early summer.  By aggregating demand, we can get a really good deal on LED lights that are already very cost-effective.
  • Invest in weatherization. A better insulated building requires less fuel to heat.  It’s as simple as that.  Again, if this is something that interests you, and you you have a home on Monhegan or Matinicus, shoot me an email.
  • Upgrade your heating system.  You can stand to save a lot by upgrading your heating system, but it on what kind of system you have, and what you intend to replace it with, so make sure you really do your homework.  Efficiency Maine has a handy home heating calculator, which can help you decide which system is best for you.  Also, it’s a good idea to talk to anyone who works with heating systems on the island, because they will be able to explain the various pros and cons of different systems.

This short term slump in fuel prices is more than just a stroke of good fortune.  It’s an opportunity to wrest the economic viability of the diesel islands out of the hands of complex global markets, and into the hands of the people in those communities.