Energy answer may be blowing in the wind on this island

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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

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.

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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.

This winter she will stay, thanks to a wood stove near the TV - although she and her husband expect to split and haul seven cords of wood to fuel it this winter. ''It's a constant lug and carry,'' she says, ''but we've got plenty of time.''

Bumping over the deep-rutted roads in her rusting four-wheel-drive pickup, Caitlin Bunker talks about her concern for the island's future. ''I think you have to be a special person to live here,'' she says. An ''off islander'' herself - a summer resident who married a lobsterman, raises chickens, goats, and vegetables, and does the daily readings of the NEC's three anemometers that measure wind speed - she worries that increasing costs will cause other families to leave the island.

Gesturing across the bay toward the next island, she talks about Criehaven - a once-thriving community that is now something of a ghost town, inhabited only during the summer. She, too, feels the pressure: Earlier this fall, for 450 kilowatts of power, she paid $205. Even that does not represent the entire cost: the islanders subsidize the electricity company out of taxes. But she resists the notion that the community, as reported in recent press accounts, is evaporating. ''We're getting this wind survey,'' she says, adding, ''I don't think that's a sign of going downhill.''

The islanders still need to be persuaded that a combination of windpower, conservation, and modified design of the diesel system could help them. They tend to be wary of new schemes from the mainland. But the islanders on Matinicus , says Frank Bowles, have ''a long record of conservative but intelligent acceptance of technological change.'' Their boats, he says, are among the best on the coast - which helps explain why no one from Matinicus has been lost at sea in this century. And while lobstering is an old skill, the islanders use the latest in plastic buoys, nylon ropes, and vinyl-coated wire traps.

For Mr. Bisplinghoff, the problem is fascinating in its complexity. The wind-generating system must be simple to maintain and capable of standing up to a tough environment. It must also be integrated with the present system, so that fluctuations of voltage and frequency can be leveled out. Ideally, too, it will include a means for storing power which is generated when there is little demand - in the small hours of a windy night, for example. And it must be affordable: Even though the fuel is free, wind systems typically cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $3,000 per kilowatt-hour to construct.

Bisplinghoff hopes the work on Matinicus will demonstrate the feasibility of wind power for other nearby islands - like neighboring Monhegan, which has a community water system but still uses kerosene lights. He also hopes it will have relevance to rural communities on the mainland, even those connected to a utility grid. ''In a very microcosmic way,'' he says, ''with numbers you can put your arms around, we're going to be looking at a number of burning questions that the major utilities are looking at.''

Will it work? Pat Lewis, cutting a wheel of cheese behind the counter of the dimly lit store, sums up the islanders' response with Yankee simplicity. ''Something's got to work,'' she says.

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