By Emily du Houx

October 16, 2012

The Maine Historical Society’s new exhibition, “Wired! How Electricity Came to Maine,” comes at an interesting time. Maine is poised to become the first state to have a commercial-scale floating wind farm, a move that could be quite historic. Floating wind farms are more cost-efficient than ones that have to be anchored to the sea floor, and they reduce visual pollution and interference with shipping lanes and fishing, because they can be located farther out to sea, in waters too deep for bottom-mounted structures. Though “Wired!” does not highlight these contemporary developments, the show does provide a rich background from which to view current wind-power projects.

The history of wind power in Maine is deeper than it might appear at first glance; it stretches back further than the construction of the first wind farm in the state, on Mars Hill in 2006, and the subsequent developments over the past six years. As the industry forges forward, using new composite technologies and testing innovative solutions to cost and construction issues in recent projects off the coast, it is easy to see wind-based technology as very modern and almost futuristic. But when all this is viewed with the past in mind, it seems to be an almost predictable step in the progression of energy technologies that started with the first flicker of electric light in Piscataquis County in 1880.

The Maine Historical Society (MHS) show describes the history of electricity in Maine as a gradual development, which sprang from small businesses and organizations that could only serve limited areas, sometimes as small as one mill or building, into the statewide system it is today.

The meticulously curated exhibition is in its fourth month and contains such curious items as an interactive electric generator, which allows visitors to crank a handle and create light; various mysterious tools used by linemen in the 1900s; a letter “E” neon light bulb that bares little resemblance to contemporary neon signs, as it sits in its own attached glass casing and seems to have been handcrafted; and a pro-nuclear pamphlet from 1980 that displays two photos, one of an quaint-looking, old-fashioned water mill, the other of a full-scale nuclear power plant, with the phrase “Yankee Ingenuity” above the duplet. A deep emerald green hydro turbine and electric generator takes up most of the floor space in the center of the primary exhibition room. Behind it looms a somewhat terrifying human-size doll of Reddy Atom, a smiling educational figure of 1950s television and print, who has a light bulb for a nose, lightning bolts for a body, and somewhat demonic ears or horns of electrical bolts issuing from the top of his oversized head.

Opposite Reddy, on the left as you walk in, is an 1865 model by J. A. Hubbard of a mechanism to power a windmill. Windmills were in operation in Portland in the 1700s, and various models and improvements have been patented in the years since. It is not known whether Hubbard’s beautifully crafted piece, dubbed an “Improvement in Wind-Wheels” by the patent displayed next to it, ever made it out of the prototype stage, but it seems that another prototype, currently in the works at the Advanced Structures and Composites Center at the University of Maine, will.

On September 6th, just around the corner and down the road from the MHS exhibition, an American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) panel discussion about offshore wind production laid out the details of a plan to construct a one-to-eight scale floating wind-power turbine prototype and launch it off the coast of Maine in March. This prototype, made from composites, looks significantly different from Hubbard’s walnut-and-brass model. It will also generate much more electricity. It is one step in a process that, if all goes as planned, will generate five gigawatts (approximately the energy usage of New York City) of power by 2030.

The panel discussion took place on the second day of the two-day summit. Exhibition space was sold out as representatives from industries involved in wind energy as far afield as California, Tennessee, and Glasgow, Scotland, set up stands and tables to display their skills and wares. Several businesses based in Maine or with Maine offices — General Dynamics, Cianbro Corporation, the James W. Sewall Company, Stantec Consulting, among others — occupied stands next to their national and international counterparts.

AWEA, based in Washington, DC, is a national trade association, the self-described “hub of the wind energy industry.” It has over 2,400 members and advocates, and it works with project developers, equipment suppliers, services providers, manufacturers, and others involved in the wind energy business around the world.

Transmission — how to get power from its point of generation to its many points of use — was among the topics discussed at the summit, which ranged from offshore wind developments to the importance of community outreach, the future of energy demand, and the business of smaller-scale community wind projects.

Joel Whitman, chief executive officer at Global Marine Energy, called the Eastern grid the worst of the three American grids, despite the fact that it feeds some of the most important economic centers of the country. “The transmission grid that we have is Victorian. I’m sorry but it is,” he said, conjuring images of the aging, rickety lines and poles that we’ve become used to as part of the urban landscape, a transmission system that is bedecked with sneakers and vines and what seems to be decades of staples from lost-dog posters. He said that, although this may have been the height of innovation at the time of its construction, it is now outdated. Whitman called for Federal funding of a full-scale update of the grid, saying it is essential in order for wind power to reach its full potential. “Although it’s not quite as sexy as turbines and all that sort of stuff, [transmission] is something we have got to think through in meaningful detail,” he concluded.

The top part of a wooden power pole, a piece of the very grid that Whitman critiqued, is installed in the center of the MHS exhibition space; its wires extend from the post, which looms above, to the ceiling, and a stuffed crow sits atop the line. Behind this, there is an homage to the linemen who endured practically inhumane conditions to keep the grid up and running in earlier days of electrical generation. In this setting the pole and wires are on par with Whitman’s description, seeming to belong more to the age of analog dials, wooden parts, and cast iron, than to this age of composites, computers, and nanotechnology.

The technologies of the past and the developments of recent years are at odds in many ways, but in both the “Wired” exhibition and the AWEA conference, the strong, constructive relationship between the two is also obvious. Wind power builds off its long history, which stretches way back to a time before even Hubbard’s model, and it also builds off the history of innovation in the oil and natural gas fields. At the AWEA conference, Eirik Byklum, from the Norwegian company Statoil ASA, a world leader in deepwater energy operations, said that new floating wind-turbine technologies actually grew out of old technologies for gas and oil. In reference to a process being used to construct offshore turbines, Jeff Grybowski of Deepwater Wind said, “[It’s a] stupid old technology that has been used many, many times.” In this way wind power seems to be part of a long process of technological development in the history of electricity.

In the final exhibition room of the MHS museum there is a collection of sticky notes clustered under the heading, “What are your Thoughts and Concerns About Electricity in Maine?” Comments range from cartoons and jokey responses (“Remember the MC Hammer song when you see downed lines: Can’t touch this!” and, “Thank God for electric. Love my air condition[er].”) to the majority of responses, which advocate for various visions of the future of energy. Tidal, solar, and wind are well represented; a solo voice rings out in favor of more nuclear power. One note reads, “My 85 year old mother in law is arranging for installation of solar panels on her home. I am inspired by her.”

Although this smattering of opinions is not a statistically representative sampling, it does serve to illustrate the diverse attitudes that the public has concerning the issue of Maine’s energy future.

There are quite a few notes expressing concern for the environment, saying that alternative technologies are essential for the survival of the planet. This was an issue briefly but passionately touched upon during the AWEA panel on offshore wind production. There was little-to-no mention of the environmental benefits of wind power during the panel presentation, but the more relaxed question-and-answer period revealed strong opinions on the issue.

“We’ve boxed ourselves into a corner,” said Grybowski. “The only thing we can talk about is jobs — it’s jobs, jobs, jobs.” He continued, “We’ve dropped the environmental arguments … We’ve left the field,” and concluded, “If we don’t talk about it no one else will.”

Whitman agreed, “We have been bullied out of a whole conversation surrounding this.” When answering a transmission-related question, he responded, “Yeah I think that transmission is important — it is important in reclaiming the argument around climate change,” a statement greeted by an unprecedented round of applause and followed by further impassioned remarks in which he spoke about going to conference after conference where attendees tiptoe around the climate change issue for no other reason than that the wind industry has become afraid of a vocal minority.

Despite the potential industry hurdles — competitive cost, environmental issues, regulations, community support, and the like — discussion of the Block Island Wind Farm project in Rhode Island and the Cape Wind Project in Massachusetts, America’s first full-scale offshore wind farm, in combination with the developing project off the coast of Maine, created a picture of an industry on the brink of something big. Indeed, Whitman called the wind market “established,” saying that, “This is an old market, and it’s rapidly maturing,” a sentiment he reiterated later, calling the market “advanced and rapidly progressing.” Bill White, who represented the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy & Environmental Affairs at the summit, said that the industry is now at a point where it is really coming into its own. “We’ve been talking about this for a long time, but now finally the rubber is hitting the road.”

With statements like these, along with technological developments and international involvement evidenced at the recent AWEA summit, we may soon see a UMaine prototype sitting next to its 1865 brass-and-walnut counterpart at the next MHS electrical retrospective.

“Wired” continues through May 2013, and AWEA continues to hold conferences nationwide.