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Dr. Habib Dagher, director of the AEWC Composites Center at the University of Maine. Photo by Ramona du Houx

October/November 2008

Article by Ramona du Houx

Many residents of Wiscasset have a passion for Maine and are thankful to be able to enjoy a quality of life that has disappeared from other states. Their community is strong. They are used to working together and with others to get what the majority in the community want for smart growth. They and others in the state fought for Maine Yankee nuclear power station to close—and succeeded. They and others in the state fought to stop a coal gasification plant from being built in their neighborhood—and succeeded. They and others in the state are now thrilled at the possibility that Wiscasset is on a list of potential sites for the largest clean-energy development proposal in the history of the state.

Riverbank’s CEO, John Douglas, a wind-farm entrepreneur, has proposed developing a $2 billion underground hydropower station at the old Maine Yankee nuclear power station site.

In Augusta, during a recent interview, Governor Baldacci expressed his excitement about the proposal. “It’s a tremendous project that would mean good jobs and benefits for Maine, as well as moving the state a major step forward towards energy independence.” State officials and environmentalists have already met with Douglas.

The project incorporates innovative state-of-the-art technology and would be the first of its kind anywhere in the world.

Maine is ideally suited for tidal power. Historically, the settlers realized the value of this renewable resource for the development of mechanical power. As technology developed the tides were used to generate electricity. Tidal mills were commonplace along the Maine coast during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. By selecting sites capable of impounding tidal waters with substantial tidal ranges, a mill operator could store potential energy for transformation to kinetic energy with the receding tides.

Now, the proposed Aquabank plant will capture tidal waters and release them according to peak energy-use cycles. When the peak is high, tidal water from the Back River would surge straight down four huge chutes, through power-generating turbines and into caverns. When electricity demand is low and there is excess power going into the grid, the water would be pumped back to the surface. There are pump-storage systems around the world that use surface reservoirs, but none below ground.

The plant would operate in six- to eight-hour bursts and generate 1,000 megawatts of power, more than all of Maine’s hydro dams combined.

“This is a pump-storage system that uses underground reservoirs. It’s innovative technology that stores energy for peak use. It would be like buying a huge battery for your house and storing energy in it,” said Dr. Habib Dagher, director of the AEWC Composites Center at the University of Maine. “If it’s built, it would work well with wind power to generate the energy Maine needs.”

The answer is blowing in the wind, to quote Bob Dylan, who was partially right, in terms of energy needs. But according to Dagher, wind power alone is not enough. The potential answer is to have an Aquabank system working in conjunction with offshore wind power. When there is a greater need during energy peaks, Aquabank would be there to back up wind power. When the water needs to be pumped out of the Aquabank reservoirs at night, wind power could be used.

Douglas, says the project could be viewed as Maine’s wind battery.

The governor has made it a state goal to develop 3,000 megawatts of wind energy by 2020. And a Massachusetts company is seriously considering creating an offshore wind farm 26 miles out from Casco Bay.

If the project is confirmed, it would create hundreds of jobs and make the state more energy independent. Riverbank Development Corp. plans call for the construction of cavernous reservoirs and a three-story-tall power plant carved out of the bedrock 2,000 feet beneath the ground.

Wiscasset is one of 14 potential locations around North America where Douglas plans to build five underground hydro plants.

Transmission of any energy onto the grid is a major factor that makes the Wiscasset location ideal for Douglas. The tides are high, electricity transmission lines still exist from Maine Yankee, and there is rail access for construction needs.

Douglas has an impressive track record in the energy field. He created his own wind energy company, Ventus, in 2003 and sold it for $124 million. An important criteria for him to build anywhere is to have the support of the community.

Competitive Pine Tree Zone, tax incentives that the governor established will also play a part in the decision-making process.