With three turbines now spinning on Vinalhaven, it is quickly becoming clear that exploration of energy use on the Fox Islands is not over.

Fox Islands residents have recently launched their next project to look at how the power that is being created by the turbines can be used, not just to power light bulbs and microwaves, but also to affordably heat homes and run cars.

Six electric thermal storage units have been installed in homes, businesses and community buildings on Vinalhaven and North Haven in order to assess the potential to heat homes using inexpensive excess power generated by the wind turbines.

The units have been designed and programmed to take advantage of the excess energy created by the wind project by charging during hours when excess energy is available on the grid and releasing that energy as heat when it’s needed. For the Fox Islands Wind Project, significant power is created during the winter, when there are more windy days and fewer residents, creating a surplus of energy that is sold inexpensively to the mainland.

The six units are a part of the first phase in a test project that began in March and will run through the end of May. If all goes well, the Vinalhaven-based Island Energy Task Force hopes to start a longer trial of the units starting in September, with up to 50 participants using thermal and other electric heaters as well as electric cars.

The use of electric heaters and cars would allow the islanders to take advantage of energy from the wind project to address needs on the island beyond current electricity uses.

According to Adam Lachman, a member of the Island Energy Task Force and community lead for the project, “Electric rates only make up a certain percentage of overall utility costs. Home heating is an even bigger issue, especially in Maine. This seemed like a great idea to see what we can do on island to ensure that we were doing our best to positively affect the affordability and sustainability of our island community.”

 According to George Baker, vice president of the community wind program at the Island Institute, who is helping to direct the project, only 20 percent of overall island energy use is electricity.  The other 80 percent is home heating and transportation. Therefore, “the real payoff is going to come to the islands with the use of wind energy for heating and transportation.”

The project is not solely a means to take advantage of excess energy that the wind project creates. According to Lachman, “If, down the line, we’re able to determine when and where cheap renewable power is, there is the potential that we could buy that power from the mainland to benefit island residents.”

Electric thermal storage heating is not a new idea. According to Sam Zaitlin, president of Thermal Energy Storage of Maine located in Biddeford, the technology was developed about 50 years ago shortly after World War II and was offered in Maine by both Central Maine Power and Bangor Hydro. Today there are hundreds of units in the state that were installed decades ago when the technology was first introduced. However, Zaitlin says that “those early units were “dumb” – either on or off – while today’s units are fully programmable.” The ability to program the units is what is allowing Vinalhaven and North Haven residents to take advantage of the cheap electricity produced intermittently by their wind turbines.

According to Baker, much of what will be learned from the Vinalhaven pilot project will be directly applicable to any place that has a significant amount of renewable energy in their energy mix.

Baker says that the current thinking is that no more than 20 percent of the total power on the grid can be renewable energy, because of stability issues due to the fact that most renewable power is intermittent. But that assumes that the state continues to use electricity in the same way it currently does.

The ability to store electricity in electric cars and electric thermal storage heating units will allow users to take advantage of the intermittent electricity produced by wind, solar and tidal energy, storing it for when it is needed.

This will change the use patterns, which will in turn change the picture of how much renewable energy you can have on the grid. According to Baker, “Once you start thinking about these two storage technologies-cars and heaters-you can really begin to imagine a lot of renewable energy on the power grid.”

The economic benefit Fox Islands residents are starting to see could become state-wide if consumers were able to take advantage of the lower rates at which energy is sold during off-peak hours in order to charge electrically-powered units. Those participating in the pilot project are charged 5.5 cents per kilowatt hour to power their heaters vs. about 18 cents a kilowatt hour for regular use in March.

According to Baker, wholesale energy prices vary on an hour-by-hour basis (called “time-of-use pricing”) depending on the demand and the amount of power being generated at that time. However that pricing does not translate to the retail market.

According to Lachman, the Vinalhaven Island Energy Task Force is currently simulating time-of-use pricing for the pilot project, thanks to a grant from the Island Institute. However, were the project to move forward into its next phase, the Fox Island Electric Cooperative would need to formally implement a time-of-use pricing structure. This kind of pricing structure might well be possible on Vinalhaven and North Haven, where the energy co-op has the ability to set electric rates on the islands, but once on the mainland, it becomes more complicated.

Thermal Energy Storage of Maine has plans to make electric thermal heat storage economically feasible by late this summer by becoming a competitive energy provider, allowing the company to provide lower-cost energy during off-peak hours in order to charge thermal electric storage heaters, to heat water and to charge electric vehicles.

In the meantime, both islanders and mainland residents are keeping a close watch on Vinalhaven and North Haven since, as Lachman says, this pilot project is about more than just how we heat homes on the islands. “We’re looking at a whole series of questions ranging from how we incorporate renewable energy on the grid to how island residents can benefit from fuel substitution.  These issues about how we design a smarter, cost effective island grid are issues that the whole state of Maine stands to benefit from.”

Gillian Garratt-Reed is marine programs officer at the Island Institute.