Looking at Maine's Energy Future

(from Maine Townsman, November 2008)
By Douglas Rooks, Freelance Writer

Maine’s energy future will likely look a whole lot different than its recent past. That’s the message being delivered by Habib Dagher, professor of civil/structural engineering at the University of Maine. 

Dr. Dagher gave a well-attended and much appreciated presentation on “Wood, Wind, and Water: A Plan for a Secure Energy Future,” on October 9 at the 2008 MMA Annual Convention in Augusta, tying in well with the convention’s “Going Green” theme. Dagher is also director of the UM Composites Center, which has been producing innovative research and designs for more than a decade.

He followed up on his MMA convention program with a more detailed discussion of the same themes in an interview for the Townsman.

To gain a sense of Maine’s options going forward, Dagher said, one must first take a look at the big picture. Renewable energy has been part of the mix in Maine for a long time, which is sometimes overlooked amid reports – though accurate ones – that nearly 80 percent of Mainers’ homes are heated with fuel oil.

Hydroelectric power was once the mainstay of the manufacturing grid, and it’s still important here. It currently produces 22 percent of our electricity, or 8 percent of total energy consumption. In all, Maine now consumes somewhat more than 4 gigawatts of electricity; a gigawatt equals 1,000 megawatts.

Biomass is an even bigger source of electric generation at 25 percent. The biomass generators built in northern Maine during the 1980s, which languished during the cheap energy of the late ’80s and ’90s, are back in production, full bore. And many manufacturers, including paper mills, use various kinds of wood fiber to power their mills.

So while Maine has more renewable power than most states, Dagher said, these sources are limited in terms of expansion possibilities. “There’s not much more opportunity to gain from hydro,” he said. Tidal power, while attracting renewed interest, is likely to be only a minor addition to Maine’s energy potential. “Aside from Washington County, it isn’t very feasible,” he said.

And wood, too, is limited. Dagher’s retired UM colleague, Richard Hill, has long preached about the limits of wood as a substitute for fossil fuels. Dagher wants to run the numbers again, but he said that while there is some capacity for increased woodburning – a state task force advocates shifting 10 percent of homes from oil to wood pellet heat – it’s probably limited, and there may be better commercial uses for the fiber supply than burning it.

Nuclear power, sometimes advanced as a fossil fuel substitute, has not been popular in Maine in the past, and Dagher said high capital costs are equally discouraging: “It would cost about $12 billion to build a new plant today.”

The Mighty Wind

So the big new source, something we’ve heard about but are just beginning to appreciate, is wind, Dagher said.

So far, discussion has mostly centered on land applications, with the Mars Hill turbines producing electricity and three other large projects under construction. The recent state energy task force predicts that land-based wind sites could be producing 2,000 megawatts (or 2 gigawatts) by 2020, and 3,000 megawatts by 2030.

There are indeed a lot of good wind sites, but they don’t all have to be on a large commercial scale. “There are plenty of places, particularly along the coast, where municipal generation makes sense,” Dagher said. Camden is planning for windpower generation, and more communities are likely to embrace it as well, he believes.

But the big – really big – potential for wind generation lies offshore. Current estimates show that Maine could produce as much as 100 gigawatts from offshore wind alone – or 25 times our current consumption.

Dagher hastens to cut that number down to size. Even if fully exploited, wind turbines have an efficiency factor of about 30 percent, based on year-round operation. And, the fact is that a lot of the potential lies in relatively deep water offshore, where building wind towers will be more expensive and there will also be concerns about navigation and the need for federal approval.

But even at 30 percent efficiency, Maine could produce as much electricity as 30 nuclear power plants without, of course, any dilemmas about uranium use, safety or radioactive waste.

Dagher makes clear that offshore wind is not science fiction, nor is it beyond current technological capacity.

In water up to 100 feet deep, wind towers can be erected on pilings driven directly into the seafloor. Locations like this are already producing 1,500 megawatts of electricity in Europe, with a lot more on the drawing board. A controversial wind project off Cape Cod would also be built in shallow water.

In ocean water 100-200 feet deep, the techniques switch to a lattice structure that rests on the sea floor and is bolted together in sections. These structures are also now in use, though less commonly than those on pilings.

Beyond 200 feet, which would be much of the best wind territory off the Maine coast, towers would rest on floating platforms. While there are definite technical challenges, Dagher said they are far from insurmountable. Oil drilling rigs, such as the ones finished in Portland Harbor by Cianbro, are used around the world and have compiled good safety records. Wind towers, of course, would not pose any dangers of spills in case of an accident.

Dagher estimates that, even in the relatively early stages of using offshore wind, Maine could produce at least 5 gigawatts, somewhat more than its current electricity use.

“Why would you want to do that?” he asks. The answer lies in whether Maine can shift entirely away from fossil fuels, not just for electricity generation but for transportation as well.

The Fully-Electric Car

In the grand schemes currently being put forward, plug-in electric cars, good for trips of up to 40 miles between charges, are being touted as a practical alternative to both the conventional gasoline-fueled engine, and the hybrid gas-electric vehicles that have become increasingly popular.

While not sufficient for long-haul trips, plug-ins are more adaptable and useful than many people realize, Dagher said. An opportunity exists for replacing many of the 600,000 vehicles now on the road daily in Maine, he said.

The potential becomes clearer, he said, when you look at the costs to the average Maine family. Fuel for two vehicles now costs between $4,000-$5,000 a year, heating oil runs about $4,000, while electricity costs another $1,000 per household. Since this is such a significant part of the typical family budget – median household income is about $43,000 in Maine – the potential for change is obvious, he believes.

The potential for windpower and other alternatives will only be realized if the state and federal governments act in concert, Dagher said.

“California was a world leader in windpower in the 1980s,” he said. “Then we let the tax credits expire and the industry basically died.” European firms are now the leaders in producing wind turbines and platform; the turbines installed at Mars Hill were shipped across the Atlantic Ocean to Searsport.

In short, Dagher said, this is an opportunity for Maine to think big, and get in on emerging technologies in a way that will harness Mainers’ talents for innovation while driving the economy in a new direction. “We can keep those dollars right here, instead of sending them overseas,” he said – referring both to turbines and to the millions of gallons of imported petroleum Maine uses every year.

If Dagher seems like a bit of an alternative energy evangelist, he’s also very much the hard-headed engineer, looking at figures, evaluating potential with mathematical precision.

“High oil prices are probably here to stay,” he said. “How we respond will say a lot about us as a state, and a nation.”

Douglas Rooks is a freelance writer from West Gardiner and regular contributor to the Townsman, drooks@tds.net