MONHEGAN ISLAND, Maine – When Winnie and John Murdoch, longtime residents of Monhegan Island, heard the University of Maine did not receive a large grant for its offshore wind power project near their home, they “did a little happy dance.”
“Monhegan to this day never ceases to amaze me, that God crammed so much into such a small space,” said John Murdoch, who with his wife owns a bed and breakfast on the island, 10 miles off the mainland.
Yet life on this picturesque island, immortalized by some of America’s foremost artists, always has come at a high cost: namely, some of the highest electricity rates in the U.S.
“Living on the island is tough,” said Doug Boynton, a lobsterman and carpenter who has lived on Monhegan since 1970. “Having electricity really, really helps. And if we had the price of the electricity down, it’d make living for everybody a little bit easier here.”
Monhegan residents now pay about 70 cents per kilowatt-hour for electricity, which is more than four times the typical mainland rate of 14.6 cents. Although the latter rate is the lowest in New England, it’s well above the national average of 11.88 cents.
So lighting and heating homes, washing clothing, charging computers – all the conveniences of modern-day living – slowly burns a hole in an islander’s pocket.
The Monhegan Plantation Power District powers the island from diesel generators atop Lighthouse Hill. On average, the generators burn 30,000-35,000 gallons of diesel annually, and residents are limited to 40-amp service, compared with the typical household of 100 amps. That means no electric dryers, ovens or water heaters.
Then came Maine Aqua Ventus I, an offshore wind power experiment with the potential to significantly lower the island’s energy costs and put the state of Maine at the forefront of renewable, green energy.
But the project was dealt a major setback this week when the U.S. Department of Energy awarded the UMaine-led project just $3 million, a fraction of the $47 million grant it sought over the last two years. Projects in Oregon, New Jersey and Virginia received larger grants.
“I would say we’re slowed down a little bit until we get a better sense what DOE’s expectations are,” said Jake Ward, University of Maine’s assistant vice president for innovation and economic development.
“In a perfect world, we’d still locate the turbines off Monhegan,” he said. “It’s definitely a lot more uncertain right now.”
A community divided
Maine Aqua Ventus I is a two-turbine, 12-megawatt floating offshore pilot project based on the University of Maine’s VolturnUS technology, which is being tested in waters off Castine. The turbines are designed to be 576 feet tall, from the surface of the ocean to the tip of their blades. If erected, they’d rate among the largest wind turbines in the world. Their proposed test site is 2.5 miles south of Monhegan.
For months, the proposition of turbines off Monhegan stirred emotions in the island community, which has a year-round population of 69 and a summertime population of 250, according to the 2010 U.S. Census.
Last fall, the Monhegan Island Energy Task Force was created to start talks between the island and Maine Aqua Ventas. Made up of 13 year-round and seasonal residents, the group’s main purpose is to look out for the island’s best interests.
The group gathers on a regular basis in the island’s tiny town office to discuss the project, and co-chairmen Marian Chioffi and Tara Hire meet with Maine Aqua Ventus representatives each Wednesday.
Earlier this year, the task force mailed approximately 300 surveys to Monhegan taxpayers and ratepayers to gauge sentiments about Maine Aqua Ventus. Though not a formal vote, results revealed a split opinion. Surveys are still being returned, but so far, 60 respondents support the windpower project and 35 oppose it.
“One of my biggest fears when this all came about is that it would divide the community,” said Hire, who runs Monhegan Island Wellness Retreats. Now that the news is out, she added, “I feel like I can take a breath and have some room to move.”
Even with the grant announcement, however, the debate continues. Hire said island conversation about the project has been “a little personal and attacking” at times, but simmered down.
“I hope that continues because the last thing we want to do is take this little community and fracture it,” she said.
“This is a place where half the year we depend on fishing, and half the year we depend on tourism,” said Chioffi, owner of the Trailing Yew bed and breakfast. “So if you’re looking at having any impact on those things, that’s part of what frightens people.”
‘The great unknown’
The Murdochs count themselves among the frightened.
They have lived on Monhegan since the mid-1970s, long before centralized electricity, which came in the late 1980s. They remember breaking through ice with a shovel each day in the winter to haul water from their well. Some nights, they’d use a car battery to power their black-and-white television.
On Monhegan, they raised three children, and today, their 3-year-old granddaughter Arielle is one of three children who attend the island’s one-room schoolhouse. John fishes for lobsters, and during tourist season, the couple run the Shining Sails bed and breakfast.
“Of all the years being here and all the times I’ve walked out to the back side [of the island], when I get to that spot when I first see the drop-off and the ocean, it’s always sharp intake of breath. Every time,” Winnie Murdoch said. “It’s absolutely breathtaking. That’s where that saying came from. It’s real, and it’s Monhegan, and I don’t want anything to hurt that.”
A web of footpaths leads through a mossy forest to the “back side” of the island, which faces the southeast. And whether one walks to Burnt Head, White Head, Black Head or the shipwreck on Lobster Cove, the view is the same – a vast open ocean, seemingly endless, reaching to the horizon.
“I’m so relieved,” she said of the news that UMaine did not get the large grant.
“I think it’s the great unknown that scares people,” said John Murdoch, sitting at a table in the Shining Sails common room.
On the walls of the room they had hung paintings of Monhegan scenes, including one by renowned Maine artist Jamie Wyeth, a seasonal island resident.
“What if our guests say, ‘The reason I come to Monhegan is that beautiful view and pristine quiet you can’t find anywhere else,’” Winnie Murdoch said. “‘Now I don’t get it here. I’m not coming back.’ That’s really scary.”
“I think there is a lot of support here. This is an island. It’s all about conservation, from lobstering to land use,” said Boynton, a tool belt slung around his hips and a pencil behind his ear. He stood on the deck of a seasonal cottage where he and his sternman were busy replacing the gutters. On the sunny spring morning, the island was abuzz as islanders prepared for the busy tourist season.
“It’s all about limits,” he said. “Islands show you limits right away. I think it’s a natural fit for the culture that’s developed here.”
To make Maine Aqua Ventus I a reality, Emera Inc., Cianbro Corp. and Maine Prime Technologies LLC, a spinoff company representing the University of Maine, formed a collaborative leadership team and worked with more than 25 other organizations to form Maine Aqua Ventus. The consortium’s long-term vision is the construction of a 500-megawatt offshore wind farm project in the Gulf of Maine, out of sight of Maine’s shores.
Their goal is to achieve wind-generated electricity at 10 cents per kilowatt-hour by the mid-2020s, which would be competitive with other forms of electricity generation.
If the project secures the funding to move forward, Maine Aqua Ventus has offered to provide Monhegan electricity at no cost, which likely would slash residents’ power bills.
“One of the big problems for people living out here is just the cost of heating homes now, and it’s not just Monhegan,” Boynton said. “Everybody in the state of Maine suffers from high heating bills. If you could have inexpensive electrical heat, it would be huge.”
Of the wind project, Boynton said: “It’s gotta be in somebody’s backyard. I’m willing to give it a try here. It’s not forever.
“If this ends up being a successful technology, it’s going to be farther offshore and we’re not going to have to worry about it, but we’ll have helped pioneer it. And I think that’s a good thing to have done.”
Boynton feels that the small community of Monhegan has shown its ability to pioneer conservation efforts in the past. For example, in the 1950s, Theodore Edison purchased 300 acres of the island and formed one of the nation’s first land trusts, Monhegan Associates, to protect the land in perpetuity. Today, the enchanting wilderness area, expanded to 480 acres (approximately two-thirds of the island), is one of the chief draws for tourists.
“Monhegan has led in things before,” Boynton said. “It would be great to do it again.”
‘Our home … our waters’
Chris Smith, one of the island’s eight lobster fisherman, moved to Monhegan from Port Clyde in 1990. To stay afloat, he also works as caretaker of The Island Inn and operations manager of the island’s power district.
“I don’t think burning diesel is in our best interest out here, and wind power has potential.” Smith said. “There’s no doubt that the climate is changing. I’m no tree hugger or anything, but we’re catching fish out here that we shouldn’t be catching.”
“As a power guy, I’m optimistic about it,” Smith said. “As a fisherman, I’m concerned about losing some of my bottom.”
Monhegan fisherman set traps within an exclusive Monhegan Lobster Conservation Zone, some 30 square miles of ocean that surrounds the island and only can be fished by members of the island community. The Maine Aqua Ventas test site, approximately 1.1 mile wide and 2.1 miles long, is located within this zone. It amounts to approximately 7 percent of the bottom that Monhegan lobsterman fish.
“I hate losing any of our ground out there,” said Monhegan harbor master Sherman Stanley, who has been lobster fishing since he was 11 years old.
Stanley, now 66, is a fourth-generation Monhegan native. He lives atop Orns Hill in a house his grandfather once owned, and his great-grandfather was the island’s lighthouse keeper. Aboard his boat, Legacy, he hauls lobsters in the winter; in the summer, he runs the Fish House, a small market and restaurant overlooking the harbor.
He’s worried about the lack of communication between the Maine company and the island community.
“They’ve yet to come out here and have a formal meeting with any fishermen on the island,” he said.
Maine Aqua Ventus intends to move forward with the design and engineering phase of the project in hopes of receiving funding down the road to launch a full-scale model.
“The wind resource in the Gulf of Maine is the most robust renewable energy source we have in the state, and some would say in the country,” said University of Maine’s Ward. “It’s there. It’s not going anywhere. The need for economical energy and sustainable energy in Maine is there. The need for jobs is certainly there … . None of that has changed.”
“That’s what [research and development] is all about – finding solutions,” Ward said. “So we’ll continue to look for solutions that make sense for Maine.”
In the meantime, Smith will be working to make the energy situation better on Monhegan. He’s in the process of installing a new 40-kilowatt generator and a 13-kilowatt solar array for the power station’s roof, as well as a switchgear that will enable the power station to draw from different sources of energy. The equipment was purchased with a $420,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s High Energy Cost Grant program.
Smith remains “cautiously optimistic” that the proposed wind power project could benefit Monhegan, Maine and the world.
“I’m not going to fight it,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to see Monhegan as the one who destroyed offshore wind power for Maine.”
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