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Energy answer may be blowing in the wind on this island

By Rushworth M. KidderStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 11, 1982

Matinicus Island, Maine

What do you do when your electric bill hits $200 a month?

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For the 40 year-round residents of this coastal island 20 miles off Rockland, Maine, the answer may well be blowing in the wind.

Caught in a fuel crunch that has sent electricity costs to 50 cents per kilowatt-hour (compared with about 7 cents on the mainland), the islanders are looking at the same resource that drove the sailboats of their ancestors: the trade winds.

Using a $10,000 grant from the Maine State Planning Office, and an additional have hired a Boston-based nonprofit company, Northern Energy Corporation (NEC), to do a four-month study on the winds and recommend a plan. Preliminary investigations suggest that wind speeds may average about 17 miles per hour - enough to produce a significant flow of electricity from wind turbines.

Matinicus is not the first island to turn to wind power. Two years ago the Hawaiian Electric Company arranged to buy power from a ''wind farm'' - hoping to generate at least 10 percent of its electricity from wind power, and reduce its dependence on expensive imported oil below its present 94 percent level. Nationwide, in fact, there are nearly 100 utility companies studying the feasibility of wind power. Nor is the idea of wind power new to the US: At the turn of the century there were an estimated 6 million windmills dotted across rural America.

But the problem facing Matinicus is far more than a technical one. At stake may well be the survivability of the entire island community.

The reason, says Frank Bowles, an anthropologist at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass., and a longtime student and summer resident of Matinicus Island, is that island communities need three things to survive: a continually operating store, a regular round-trip transportation service, and manageable energy costs.

The island has a store (though it is expensive, meagerly stocked, and up for sale), and a daily mail service by light plane from Knox County Airport. And it has a source of electricity: a local diesel-powered generating system (built in the mid-1960s with federal funds) which worked well until fuel costs spiraled a few years ago.

These days, however, some residents pay $2,000 a year just to run such essentials as lights, refrigerators, and water pumps - without a clothes dryer or an electric heater in sight. ''Electricity costs are off the scale,'' says NEC's Ross Bisplinghoff, ''and it's causing islanders to leave the island.''

From her pleasant log home overlooking the harbor, Donna Rogers agrees. She and her husband, a lobsterman, had to spend one winter on the mainland recently because of the high costs. Other families have left for good.

Now, sitting at her kitchen table, three guns on the wall rack nearby and a shortwave radio scanner ready to pick up calls from her husband's boat, Mrs. Rogers talks about island life: taking overnight trips to the mainland to buy several weeks worth of groceries, sending her high-school-age daughter Christy to board with a family onshore (paid for by the state and the community) during the school year, and enjoying what she calls ''the peace and quiet'' of this two-mile-long, rockbound island.