A few weeks ago, my wife and I were scheduled to attend a family soiree at a historic lodge on Webb Lake, near Mount Blue State Park. Since we had not spent much time in this area before, we arrived early to allow time for some sightseeing.
The highlight was a stunning vista from Linda Bean’s farm, looking south across white-capped Webb Lake. The blue water, surrounded by spectacular fall foliage, with Saddleback Ridge as the backdrop, provided the type of panorama that is classic Maine.
Except, along the mountain ridge stood 12 wind turbines. Interestingly, on this fine, windy, fall day, only 10 windmills were at work; the other two looked damaged. One only had two blades. Apparently, the wind giveth and the wind taketh away!
The view certainly piqued my curiosity about wind power in Maine. Here are some interesting facts from the Energy Information Administration:
In 2017, Maine generated about 11.2 gigawatt hours of electricity (a gigawatt is 1,000 megawatts). This is a ranked list of Maine’s generation by source:
1. Hydropower – 3.3 gigawatt hours, dispatchable
2. Wood-Fired – 2.8 gigawatt hours, dispatchable
3. Wind – 2.2 gigawatt hours, non-dispatchable/intermittent
4. Natural Gas-Fired – 2.1 gigawatt hours, dispatchable
While the amount of electricity generated by wind looks impressive, there is more to the story. Wind is classified as an “intermittent generator,” which greatly diminishes its commercial value. Solar generation is also intermittent, but it is such a minor contributor that solar is not even listed as a source.
In total, Maine-based generators produced 11.2 gigawatt hours of electricity and Maine customers consumed about the same amount, which could lead to the conclusion that Maine is energy-independent.
But wait: Maine also imported a substantial amount of electricity from Canada, specifically Hydro-Quebec. Hmm… What’s going on? The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind! Here is what you need to know:
* Maine is part of the ISO New England power grid (ISO stands for Independent System Operator). The New England grid is more or less independent from the other six ISOs in the USA. It is the job of the ISO folks to make sure that, at all times, there is enough generation online to supply the demand for electricity.
Think of it this way: When you flip the switch, you’re depending on ISO to make sure someone is generating enough extra electricity so that your lights come on without your neighbors’ lights going off. Considering electricity moves at the speed of light, there is no time for a generator to make adjustments. The electricity has to be there, waiting for you to turn on the lights.
So, how does ISO do it? Fortunately, electrical demand is very predictable. That’s because we all do about the same things at about the same time each day. Unusual weather, very hot or very cold, can be a challenge for ISO, but so long as the weather is more or less as forecast, utilities will have adequate generation capacity online to make sure your neighbors’ lights stay on when you flip your switch.
* Most generators are “dispatchable,” which means ISO can depend on their supply. If it is going to be a really hot day, or a generator is down for maintenance, or the river flow is too low for hydro, ISO can call up another dispatchable generator to cover the loss.
Unfortunately, these standby generators tend to produce the most expensive electricity and have the dirtiest emissions. For example, for many years, Bangor Hydro used an oil-fired generation plant located near Bar Harbor to meet unusual peak demands. Ah, the smell of diesel smoke in Acadia. What could be better to keep the tourists and black flies away!
* Wind generators are not dispatchable. This means ISO cannot depend on windmills to deliver the electricity you need when you flip the switch. Think of it this way: That portable generator you have in the garage may, in theory, run your lights and furnace, but without gasoline, it is just a hunk of cold iron and copper.
Similarly, a wind turbine without wind is just a giant-size mountaintop lawn ornament. In fact, on hot summer days and cold winter evenings, when the peak electrical demand is the highest, winds tend to be lightest. This further diminishes wind’s value as a generator.
* I could not find answers about the number of broken windmills in Maine. Staff at the state’s Office of Energy provided a lot of background, but they did not have data on windmill failure rates.
The Saddleback Ridge project was completed in 2015, so it would certainly be concerning if, already, two of 12 windmills have failed. We do know that the windmill on the University of Maine’s Presque Isle campus and one of the Kibby Mountain generators have burned up. It is very possible that other, less spectacular failures go unnoticed.
Bottom Line: Because it may or may not be there when you flip the switch, the value of electricity generated by windmills is limited. Energy expert James LaBrecque said it this way: “Together, all the intermittent solar and wind power installed across the country has never displaced a single dispatchable generation plant. These expensive, low-production sources of power add additional cost to the whole electric system by forcing dispatchable generators to run less efficiently and less productively.”
So, since ISO cannot count on wind-generated electricity to be there when needed, this explains why Maine continues to import dependable, dispatchable electricity from Hydro-Quebec. Given this scenario, I think Maine could do just fine with fewer, not more, mountaintop generators blowing in the wind.
This Month’s ‘Did you know’:
According to the Energy Information Administration, Maine’s electricity is the cheapest of all the New England states. But – and this is a huge but – electricity in Maine is ranked 10th most expensive when compared to the entire the country, i.e., 41st of 50. Add Maine’s never-ending winters (where is that global warming?) and it’s no wonder we struggle to attract businesses.