Power Company Update June 2015 (from Jim Wilson)

The board is planning for a new source of power for the island.

As you know our cable is 32 years old this year. Every submarine cable expert we’ve talked to is amazed that it has operated without any problems for this long. The lack of problems is undoubtedly due to the care and thought Parker Waite and Russ Devereaux put into proper placement of the cable. The island owes them a big, big thank you.

Unfortunately, we can’t count on the cable lasting forever. If it were to fail suddenly and we had to supply power through the diesel generator the cost of electricity on the island would increase to around $0.85/kWh and reliability would fall. It is clear to the board of the power company that we have to do our best to avoid that kind of economic disaster. What we are looking for is a way to make a seamless transition to a new source of power.

We have just contracted with SGC Engineering in Bangor. We’ve asked them to help us plan that transition. In the near future they will give us preliminary estimates of the cost of a new cable and the cost of a community solar system serving the entire island. The reason we are considering solar is because its costs have fallen dramatically in the last few years; at the same time the costs of submarine cables have risen.

The initial estimates SGC has received for the cost of a new cable are very high, close to a million dollars! We have been setting aside money in a cable fund, but that fund has not kept pace with the rising costs of cable. So the bottom line at this time is that a new cable would mean a substantial increase in the cost of electricity, as much as 50%.

The most cost effective alternative appears to be a community solar/battery/diesel hybrid system. A system like this would power the island grid with a large field of solar panels — less than an acre — and a set of very large batteries. The batteries store the electricity from the solar panels so that it can be used at night and on cloudy, foggy days. We would retain the diesel as a back-up for extended periods of fog and heavy clouds.

Like solar, the costs of ‘utility scale’ batteries have fallen very fast, largely because they use entirely new technologies. These are not lead acid batteries like you use in your car. There are three kinds of batteries that we are considering— very large utility scale lithium-ion, vanadium flow and aqueous-ion. If you could imagine three or four shipping containers (8’x8’x16’), that is about the size/volume of batteries a community system like ours would require.

At this time we do not have solid costs for a community solar system for the island. However, solar costs elsewhere are getting to be close to our current costs. Getting a better handle on these costs is the most important thing we’ve asked SGC to do.

One important aspect of a solar system is worth mentioning at this time. On a sunny day the batteries in a solar system are usually charged by mid-day. For the remainder of the day the solar panels can produce power but, if there is no way to use it; it is simply excess. If there were a way to use this excess, a solar system could be much more economical. Using smart meters, this excess could be sold for a price well below the normal kWh price, maybe about half the equivalent cost of heating oil. Possible uses might be storing that energy in individual houses as hot water for home heating, running freezers, charging electric cars, and so on. We could also sell some of this excess to the mainland for as long as our cable continues to operate. Use of this excess power could save people on the island a lot of money and at the same time help make the solar system more efficient and cheaper. But people would have to invest in ways to use this energy. One of the things we have asked SGC to look into is the different ways this excess power might be used.

This summer we plan to hold two public meetings to explain the results of the SGC work and to discuss the power company plans and to answer questions. Our first meeting is tentatively scheduled for July 19th or 20th. The second meeting will be held around the 16th or 17th of August. In addition, we will have the company’s annual meeting on August 29th.

For those of you who like to do ‘homework’, sometime in the next week I will post internet links to information about community solar systems, the new kind of batteries and other items that may be of interest.

Posted in power company.