As Maine weighs its future electricity needs, a debate has emerged over which sources will truly generate significant amounts of power and fulfill their promise of being environmentally friendly. Gov. John Baldacci, members of the Legislature and the Maine Public Utilities Commission frequently voice optimism about Maine’s numerous wind power projects, as well as developments in tidal and solar power, but some experts predict that the majority of electricity will continue to come from nuclear and natural gas-powered facilities.

“There’s no question we need to shift away from fossil fuels. Beyond the environmental reasons, the volatility in the prices is really hurting our economy,” said Sen. Philip Bartlett, D-Gorham, co-chairman of the Legislature’s Committee on Utilities and Energy.

At peak demand in the summer months, the entire state of Maine uses 2,200 megawatts of electricity, according to the PUC. A megawatt is equal to 1 million watts, and the megawatt measurement represents the amount of electricity being used or put out at any given moment in time. New England’s annual peak demand is 28,100 megawatts. In the course of a year, the state’s total energy usage is 12,600 gigawatt hours. New England’s annual energy usage is 132,700 gigawatt hours, according to the PUC. A gigawatt is 1 billion watts.

Maine law requires that 30 percent of electric energy supplied to consumers come from a renewable fuel or an efficient process, and last year the Legislature voted to increase that requirement by 10 percent by 2017. Renewable energy is the term for electricity that is created by sunlight, wind, moving water and geothermal heat, or heat from the ground, resources that naturally replenish themselves.

In 2006, the year for which the most recent figures were available, electricity flowing to Maine consumers was made up of the following resources: 25 percent natural gas, 22.5 percent nuclear power, 17.5 percent hydroelectric turbines, 12 percent coal, 4 percent oil, 3.5 percent municipal solid waste, 10.5 percent biomass and 5 percent from other sources, according to the PUC. Wind, tidal and solar power did not contribute to the electricity grid in 2006, and today only the Mars Hill wind power project has come online. That facility is now contributing about 25 megawatts to the ISO New England power grid at any given time, according to the PUC.

And not everyone agrees on the definition of green power. Strict environmentalists include only solar, wind and geothermal heat in their list of green power sources. The state and utility companies include hydroelectric power in their list of environmentally friendly options, but some environmental groups believe hydroelectric dams should be dismantled because they prevent salmon and other migrating fish from traveling upriver.

Biomass plants, which burn wood and corn, are sometimes criticized for pollution and burning trees, although it is in the form of waste wood. Wind raises concerns from residents and environmental groups who protest wind turbines’ noise, hazards to winged creatures and intrusion on scenic views.

Wind power’s potential

Even though wind power barely registers on the list of Maine’s current sources of electricity, the state is aggressively pursuing its development. Maine has now issued more permits for wind generation than all other New England states combined, according to the PUC. State officials and the PUC believe Maine holds an advantage over other New England states in terms of siting, cost and availability of wind.

“The private sector’s been investing a tremendous amount of money in making these technologies commercially viable, and they have succeeded with wind,” PUC Chairman Kurt Adams said in a recent interview. “Fifteen years ago, wind was really speculative and experimental, but because of the technological innovations that have occurred, it’s one of the highest-growth sectors of electricity generation.”

There are more than 1,000 megawatts of wind generation in Maine on the drawing board or in some phase of development, including Mars Hill, Kibby Mountain, two projects at Stetson, two projects in western Maine involving former Gov. Angus King and a Horizon project in Aroostook County.

The Governor’s Task Force on Wind Power Development in Maine released a report last month that called for the state to host at least 2,000 megawatts of wind power by 2015, and at least 3,000 megawatts by 2020. The task force believes that at least 300 megawatts of the 2020 goal could be achieved with projects built offshore.

Because of its size and geography, Maine has as much wind resource potential onshore as the rest of New England combined, according to the task force, but its members believe there may be a limit to how much wind power development Maine people will accept, especially if other New England states are not addressing climate change and reducing energy consumption. Gerry Chasse, manager of transmission development at Bangor Hydro-Electric Co., said he believes wind power is commercially viable, but is concerned about its technical limitations.

“The intermittency of wind creates problems for the electric system. Wind is here today and gone tomorrow,” Chasse said. “In order to supplement that, you need complementary types of generation like hydro. You can store water to generate energy when there’s no wind.”

Richard Hill, retired professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Maine, believes that wind power represents just a drop in the bucket of the needs of New England — and he worries about the long-term viability of natural gas.

“The major focus of energy concern must be on the 10,000 megawatts of New England generation capacity that is locked into natural gas,” Hill said in a recent interview. “The gas to supply these units is derived from the U.S. Gulf Coast, Atlantic Canada, Sable Island and the Canadian great plains. But Sable Island is in steep decline. Hence the drive to locate LNG terminals, where gas can be imported from those same countries from which we are importing petroleum. Is it time to reconsider the nuclear option?”

Despite New England’s still substantial reliance on nuclear power, a new plant in Maine is unlikely because of political barriers and cost, according to Sen. Bartlett. He said he hopes Canada will go through with plans to construct a second nuclear plant at Point Lepreau.

“Hopefully we will have a strong relationship with Canada,” Bartlett said. He said that power sharing with the United States’ northern neighbor remains very important and hopes that wind projects in Maine will help meet Canada’s demands.

Despite Hill’s concerns about the future of natural gas, it remains a vital source for Maine’s electric power. For example, Maine’s co-generation plants, such as the one in Bucksport owned by Bucksport Energy and Verso Paper Mill, rely heavily on natural gas. Co-generation plants burn natural gas, oil and other products are considered efficient because the process yields both electricity and heat or steam. The Bucksport plant owners rely on the Sable Offshore Energy Project, near Sable Island, off the coast of Nova Scotia, and are closely following the progress of Canaport LNG in St. John, New Brunswick, and Deep Panuke, 151/2 miles offshore Halifax, Nova Scotia.

“We certainly welcome this [natural] gas coming in,” said Bucksport Energy President Richard Lizotte.

Glenn Poole, manufacturing support manager at Verso Paper, said he and Bucksport Energy pay a lot more for natural gas than other states. He said he also is in favor of the LNG terminals proposed in Washington County.

“We’ve got serious concerns about the ability of Sable Island to feed us gas,” Poole said. “Supply is just not there. There are more and more outages.”

There are currently three proposed LNG projects in Washington County: Downeast LNG, Quoddy Bay LNG and Calais LNG. The PUC, along with LNG project developers, noted that in the past decade, Maine has seen a substantial increase in the demand for natural gas, because of the construction of new co-generation plants. Dean Girdis, president of Downeast LNG, said an increased supply of natural gas is the easiest short-term response to energy demands. Regional demand for natural gas is the major reason for his decision to propose a terminal in Robbinston, he said.

Biomass, hydro and tidal

Job creation and economic development are cited by legislators and the PUC as additional reasons to consider new generation facilities, especially in the area of biomass. Kevin Crossman, vice president of Ridgewood Power Management, which has biomass plants in Enfield and Jonesboro, is uncertain but hopeful about the future of biomass in Maine. The cost to transport waste wood from mills to his plants continues to rise, especially with the steeply escalating price of diesel, and because he sells his power to the grid based on market prices, he often absorbs those rising costs.

“The cost of fuel and the market price of electricity is a concern of ours all the time,” Crossman said.
The two forms of water-based generation, hydroelectric and tidal power, are in opposite phases of development. Hydro has been in place for more than a century, and opportunities continue to exist for increased hydroelectric generation, according to Scott Hall, manager of environmental services for PPL Maine’s hydroelectric sites in Veazie and Milford. Tidal generation, on the other hand, is largely undeveloped. The Gulf of Maine appears to have a strong potential for tidal power, matched by few other areas in the U.S.

“Tidal is probably the next most substantial piece of technological innovation,” Adams said. “There are over 40 types of technologies for tidal energy. Investors are looking at understanding which of these are going to be successful, … but I believe that in three to five years they’ll be where wind is in Maine [now].”

In its analyses, the PUC identifies wind, biomass and tidal generation, along with additional natural gas and liquefied natural gas facilities, as the future of the region’s electricity generation. John Kerry, director of the Governor’s Office of Energy Independence and Security, believes the average consumer plays an important role.

“Reducing our dependence on energy would reduce our dependence on all fossil fuels,” Kerry said. “The best kilowatt is the kilowatt we don’t utilize.”