How to supply power to an island

Two-day summit discusses the issues
Sat, 04/11/2015 - 9:30am

On Wednesday, April 1, a group of not-your-typical tourists arrived on Block Island to take part in a two-day New England Island Energy Exchange “site visit.” The trip was coordinated by Suzanne MacDonald, community energy director for the Island Institute, a non-profit organization in Rockland, Maine. 

With her she brought “islanders” from Monhegan and Matinicus Islands, Isle au Haut, and Star Island. Some of them had taken a trip to the small island of Samso, off the coast of Denmark, along with 15 university students last October to attend the Samso Energy Academy. Samso, since 1997, has transformed itself from a community dependant on diesel and coal to meet its energy needs to a model for sustainable and renewable energy. 

Block Island residents Kim Gaffett, Dr. Peter Baute, and Bryan Wilson, as well as employees of Block Island Power Company (BIPCo) and Town Planner Jane Weidman all participated in some aspect of the two day exchange.

The first activity for the visitors was a tour of the BIPCo plant. It was followed by a dinner at Red Gate Farm, and then on Thursday, April 2, they gathered at Town Hall to hear presentations by Weidman and Deepwater Wind.

As does Block Island, all of these small islands are challenged to meet their energy needs, and some of them pay more for each kilowatt hour than Block Island. 

On Monhegan, in Maine, electricity costs 70 cents per kilowatt hour, a flat rate, compared to the fluctuating rate charged by BIPCo, which varies according to the price of diesel fuel to run its generators. (For contrast, one B.I. resident’s bill showed a net cost of 37 cents per kwh for the month of February 2015, down from 58 cents last July.) A two-turbine offshore wind farm has been proposed close to Monhegan, the Aqua Ventus wind farm, but the University of Maine led project has met not only with problems in funding the project, but opposition as well, including the town of Bristol, which voted against allowing the transmission cable to go through its town. 

Out on Isle au Haut, also in Maine, where there were 172 housing units, and 73 residents according to the 2010 census, there is another problem. They have a cable to the mainland, but it is 30 years old and past its useful life. What course to follow next, was the question.

Star Island, off the coast of New Hampshire, has been working for a few years on becoming more sustainable in several ways. This small island is privately owned by the Star Island Corporation, a non-profit that purchased the island in 1916. They run a family retreat and conference center on the 47 acre island. “Star Island was founded on the traditions of Unitarian-Universalism and the United Church of Christ,” according to its web-site. One of their missions is to become a model of a sustainable community. 

Just as Block Island does, although on a much smaller scale, Star runs a reverse-osmosis water and wastewater disposal plant, and up to recently produced all of its electricity with diesel generators. They have taken many steps in the past few years to reduce energy costs, largely through more efficient uses of water — the reverse-osmosis plant requires quite a bit of energy. To that end, how they do laundry and wash dishes has undergone change. Toilets are flushed with salt water.

Star Island achieved a milestone in 2014 when a solar array, years in the making, finally went “online” in November. That array is expected to provide 60 percent of the island’s electricity, and after the group departed Block Island, they were heading up to Star Island to tour it.

Town Planner Jane Weidman took the group through Block Island’s creation of an energy plan, a part of the town’s state-required, comprehensive plan with the assistance of former Town Councilor Baute, who was instrumental in its creation, having chaired the group that developed it.

The plan deals with not only electric and other sources of power such as fuel oil, propane, and gasoline, but with solid waste processing, and water and sewage disposal as well. Each section has “Goals” and “Implementing Actions.” 

Goals in the plan range from small to large. One such small item is banning restrictions by homeowner’s associations for “solar collectors, clotheslines, or other energy devices based on renewable resources, from being installed on buildings erected on the lots or parcels covered by the deed restrictions, covenants, or binding agreements.” 

One of the grandest goals was exploring the possibility of a land-based, municipally owned wind turbine at the transfer station. That project met with a lot of resistance. One of Weidman’s “slides” showed the text: “The Process — Be ready for controversy.” She said that when the plan was first presented as a draft at a Planning Board meeting, it was the “most vitriolic meeting I have been to in 30 years.”

Throughout the presentation, ideas were shared within the group. MacDonald spoke about the concept of “aggregating demand,” whereby purchasers pool together for the bulk purchasing of products such as L.E.D. light bulbs, or services such as energy audits. 

Baute cautioned the group on energy audits, saying you had to be careful that those doing the audit were using reasonable information to form their conclusions. This was a problem when Block Island had audits performed on its municipal buildings a few years ago, he told the group.

Marion Chioffi, from the Monhegan Plantation Power District, and who also runs an inn, spoke of the need for educating tourists on the importance of water and energy conservation. On Monhegan, laminated information on recycling and the importance of conservation is hung in rental homes and hotels. She has also instituted a “towel system” in her inn to encourage visitors to use towels more than once in order to save water. (Some of the inns and hotels on Block Island do this as well.) “Little things add up,” she said.

Chioffi also spoke of involving and educating the kids. Smart meters at the school have allowed the students to monitor how much electricity the building is using, and when and why usage goes up. She said that her kids began monitoring their electric use at home also, and when they saw how much power running a hair dryer used, gave them up. 

All agreed that involving the local communities was the key to forming goals and implementing policies. Weidman told the group that they “used on-island talent” to develop the energy plan for Block Island, a document that is 57 pages long, and was approved by the state in 2012. Baute said that Block Island’s plan was the first one in the state to be filed and approved.

As Block Island is poised to be the site of the United State's first off-shore wind farm, there was of course much interest in how the project, in the works since 2008 has come to the brink of reality. 

Bryan Wilson, of Deepwater Wind, presented next, and discussed how to sell the idea to the public. “Your primary concern is public relations.” Wilson stressed the need to get information out to the people, identify concerns and get feedback, and to indentify stakeholders. Are they seasonal or year-round, vacation-home renters or day-trippers? “Who counts? Are they significant? I think the answer is ‘everyone counts.’”

Wilson told the group that Deepwater had largely done this through open-houses and “meet and greets" and he added: “If you offer refreshments you get a better turnout.”

Wilson also stressed the importance of always being honest about the project with the public. To help, “you need a bag of tricks,” he said opening a portfolio. He showed the group a picture of what the wind farm will look like from the Southeast Lighthouse that Deepwater had commissioned. Then he showed one that detractors had come up with, showing the turbines as much larger. “Opponents can say anything they want,” said Wilson. 

As the Block Island Wind Farm is a demonstration project, Wilson said: “We don’t want to fail.” It would not only be a failure for Block Island but for “offshore wind as a nascent industry in the United States.” 

It didn’t hurt that there is an “eco-tourism ethos on-island” and a concern for the environment that spreads through the children and school programs. Social aspects of the project are “how we teach our children about the stewardship of the planet,” said Wilson. He also spoke of the trickle down effects in reduced electric rates, from savings in town budgets that would free up money for other uses, to lower prices for groceries and meals. 

One of the many arguments against the wind farm has been its potential for the harm of wild life, and Wilson described the various studies taken as part of the project’s Environmental Analysis, including a bird and bat analysis that had taken place at the Southeast Lighthouse over the course of three years. Studies of birds, fish and marine mammals will be ongoing — “in advance, during and after construction,” said Wilson. 

Block Island may be the first offshore wind farm in the U.S. to be built, but it is not the first envisioned, and Wilson said that the company had learned a lot from the proposed Cape Wind Project in Massachusetts. He did acknowledge though that there had been problems in Narragansett, where the cable will land on a state beach. At first, the cable was to land at a town-owned beach, but opponents, and there were not many, according to Wilson, objected. There was little support for the project. “There was no counter-balance” to the detractors in Narragansett. “Most people didn’t care.” 

Wilson said Deepwater had spent a lot of time on Block Island, but not in Narragansett. “That was our fundamental mistake.” 

After three hours at Town Hall, the group was eager to get outside and to tour some of the “sites of interest including cable interconnect and viewpoint of project site,” according to the itinerary. So off they went to the Fred Benson town beach and the Southeast Lighthouse, before heading back to the mainland on the ferry.