Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Matinicus and Criehaven Sustainable Energy System

Our islands have several challenges in maintaining sustainable communities. Energy is expensive, and will almost certainly get more expensive. I estimate the two islands spend between one and two million dollars a year for energy – diesel, gasoline, heating oil, propane, and electricity. Over the next 20 years, if energy prices do not go up much, we will be spending about $40 million. And we are sending a lot of that money to people who don't like us.

We are lucky to be in a Zone 6 wind area, which the Department of Energy calls “outstanding”. If only we could use some of that wind to meet all our energy needs....

NH3 (anhydrous ammonia) is a potential fuel. It can be used in internal combustion engines with some modifications. It could also be used as a propane replacement for stoves and heaters. It burns to H2O (water vapor) and nitrogen gas, and has no greenhouse or ozone-depleting effects.

NH3 can be made from air, salt water, and electricity. If we have some powerful wind turbines, we could use the electricity to make NH3 and power the Matinicus grid. When the wind is light, we use some of the NH3 in a generator to make electricity. Most of the NH3 would be used as fuel for the lobster fleet, and some could be used for other purposes, such as cooking. In the windy winter, when there is a lot of electricity, some of the (excess) electricity can be used for heating economically.

I estimate we use about 400,000 gallons of fuel a year. Ten percent of that is used for producing electricity on Matinicus. We would need between four and five megawatts of power to produce the equivalent of 400,000 gallons of fuel. For comparison, the Fox Islands Coop's three turbines have a capacity of 4.5 megawatts.

The Fox Island project cost about $15 million dollars. A rough estimate of an NH3 plant is about $10 million, so the total might be $25 million. That sounds like a lot of money, but so is the $40 million we will probably spend over the next 20 years.

A wind-turbine NH3 facility would essentially lock in our energy cost for the next 20 years. My very rough figures indicate an equivalent cost of about $3.00/gallon for NH3 production, so in the very short term we would not be saving money. However, almost all the cost of production is fixed, so in ten years, the cost would probably be only $3.30 per gallon, and in 20 years $3.60.

Predicting future energy prices is a crap shoot. My forecast is that energy will be going up for several reasons.  1) “Peak oil” theories strongly show that we are not discovering new oil supplies nearly as fast as we are consuming them, and that we are using up the easy-to-refine, easy-to-pump resources. Some people say that Saudi Arabia may be a oil importer by 2035.  2) The US is the only oil importing country with the price of gasoline under $5.00. Gasoline has been over $5.00 in Europe for a decade. I do not see any way we will be able to continue with cheap gas.  3) Washington is intent on raising the cost of fossil fuels, whether by cap-and-trade, carbon taxes, or other mechanisms.  4) The US dollar will suffer from significant inflation, so the price of oil will rise as other countries, like China and India, buy oil with strong currencies.  5) Petroleum is heavily subsidized in the US. See my posts about subsidized petroleum at lhttp://krementz.blogspot.com/2009/12/oil-is-subsidized.html below .  The true cost of oil, without subsidies, is over $5.00 per gallon. I doubt that the country will continue to afford such a cross subsidy in the future

My guess is in ten years we will see ten dollar gasoline. Your guesses will vary. However, I don't think anybody sees $2.00 gasoline on the horizon.

I am researching the possibilities of setting up a system for us. We would be the first people doing this kind of project. I will be talking with everybody from both islands to get questions, and hopefully get some answers, too.

FAQ – the Frequently Asked Questions

What is NH3?

NH3 (anhydrous ammonia) is a very pungent, colorless gas that is lighter than air. When exposed to water, it becomes ammonium hydroxide, NH4OH. Ammonium hydroxide is what we commonly know as ammonia in household cleaners.

NH3 is one of the most produced chemicals in the world, with over 120 millions tons (48 billion gallons) consumed annually. Most NH3 is used for fertilizer; half the world's food is produced with NH3 fertilizers.

NH3 handles very similarly to propane. At 115 pounds pressure it is liquid, and is stored in low pressure tanks, just like propane. Some users actually use propane tanks for the gas, but that is not recommended.

The Department of Transportation considers NH3 non-flammable, as it has a very high ignition point. A typical lighter cannot ignite it. NH3 is virtually impossible to cause an explosion at normal pressures.

As a gas, the fuel is always kept under pressure in a closed system, like propane. Unlike propane, a small leak is very noticeable, and the gas floats up and away.

Turbines are big. Where would we fit them?

Obviously there is no room on-island for turbines. They would be in the water, probably on the western side where there is less wind shadow. A solid state NH3 synthesis plant should be able to fit inside the tower itself. I am proposing two big turbines to minimize the disturbance to the bottom.

What about the fishing bottom?

Obviously, nobody wants to do anything that threatens or hurts the fishing bottom. We need to do careful studies and research to make sure nothing we do will harm the fishing.

Some fisherman have asked about the electricity in the water. There have been buried underwater cables for years all over Maine, such as Vinalhaven, North Haven, Isleboro, and Isle Au Haut. I am not aware of any complaints from fishermen in these areas. The cables for the turbines would all be buried below the bottom, so traps can be set without interference.

Isn't NH3 toxic?

No. Most animals, including humans, produce NH3 naturally, and excrete the excess. However, NH3 is highly caustic, and too much can cause serious eye and lung injuries, including death.

All fuels are potentially dangerous. Propane, natural gas, and gasoline vapors are highly explosive. Gasoline causes cancer and dermatitis. Diesel creates long-term pollution when spilled and does not bio-degrade. Diesel usually has smoky exhausts. All carbon-based fuels emit carbon dioxide, and the liquid fuels emit other pollutants such as NOx, sulfur compounds, and carbon monoxide.

NH3 is detectable (intense smell) in very low concentrations, about 5 parts per million, which is way below any dangerous level. Unlike propane, NH3 leaks are not ignored.

The technology for storing and distributing NH3 is well known and understood. Everybody who works with NH3 will receive appropriate training. The safety record for NH3 is very good. More people die from lightning and personal watercraft accidents than NH3 exposure.

Is this an Island Institute project?

No. I have had conversations with several of the Island Institute people, but this is not an II project. This is an islander project. If we want to do it, we will. If we do not want to, we won't.

Coincidentally, I went to Harvard Business School with George Baker, who has been driving force for the Fox Island wind project at the Island Institute.

How does NH3 work in an engine?

There are half a dozen ways to burn NH3 in internal combustion engines. During World War II, the buses in Belgium all ran on NH3. The US military did a lot of work on running tanks and other vehicles on NH3 in the 50s, in case there was a war and a shortage of oil.

NH3 has such a high ignition point (1204 deg F) that normal compression ignition (diesel) or spark ignition (used for gasoline engines) does not work. An igniter is needed, such as diesel fuel, hydrogen, DME (dimethyl ether), or propane.

One way of running NH3 is to start a diesel engine with diesel fuel. After the engine starts, a steady supply of diesel fuel is injected to keep the engine idling. When additional power is needed, NH3 is injected into the engine. This process works with about 90-95% NH3, and the balance diesel. One big advantage of this type of system is that if there is a shortage of NH3 or some other problem, the engine still runs fine on 100% diesel just by turning the valves.

I will be happy to explain some of the other means of running engines for those who are interested.

Who is going to own this?

This project will only work if it is community-owned. Whether or not the entity will be actually a co-op or another legal form has not been determined. It will not be a part of the Matinicus Plantation Electric Company, however the project will have a power purchase agreement to supply electricity to the co-op.

Will we vote on it? How long will this take?

Yes, when there is enough information there will be a vote. This project will only move forward if the community is very strongly in favor of it. If only 60% say “Yes”, this project won't happen.

I am still gathering information, and I do not have all the answers yet so there is nothing to vote on at this point. Please send me questions or comments. The best way is to put them on this blog, or you can email me. Please click on the link below.

If we get information that shows this project is feasible, and if everybody is strongly in favor, the project will take four to five years.


  1. Thought provoking post! Any idea how far off the west side of the island the turbines might be placed? Why not put them on two bush island off Markey's beach or even out on Wooden Ball?

  2. Thank you for your comment. The west side, according the wind maps I have seen, has better wind. To keep construction costs down, we need to have the turbines in less 100 feet of water. To keep cable cost low, we need to keep them fairly close. Buried underwater cabling costs about a million dollars a mile.

    My thought was to put the turbines right on the Criehaven-Matinicus line so they would equidistant to each island for the cables, and both islands have equal amounts of bottom occupied.

    However, nothing is final, of course.

  3. George Tarkleson sent me this comment, which I am posting and responding to with his permission. My response is below.

    Hi Rick
    Interesting ideas you are presenting
    I have a few questions -
    - Why windmills on the west side since in the summer when
    Electric demand is highest the wind is not from the north or west?
    - How do you get the ammonia from the windmills to the powerhouse area and to boats
    - If people had to evacuate due to a massive leak where and how would they go?

    Hope your winter is going well

    My response:

    Nice to hear from you. I hope you had a great Christmas.

    According to the detailed wind maps at the Island Institute, the west
    side has a better wind resource. It makes sense, our summer winds are
    typically SW with occasional NW, winter is NW, and when it blows
    Easterly there is plenty of wind so the shadow does not matter.

    I do not know whether it makes sense to run a small pipeline along the
    electric cable to the power house (a 1 or 2 inch ID pipe). I want to
    store as little as possible NH3 on-island, so the storage tank at the
    powerhouse would be perhaps 500 gallons. The bulk of the storage,
    at least 100,000 gallons, would be stored off shore in the base of the

    The other way is to barge the NH3 from the turbines to the harbor. I
    think that is riskier, and would probably entail more storage at the

    I hope we can have the majority (or all) of the vessel refueling
    offshore at the platform to minimize the NH3 in the village. Of
    course, that would only work during decent weather.

    Even in event of a catastrophic tank leak, I doubt an evacuation would
    be required. The safety bulletins I have read tell people to close
    the windows, stay inside and stay low. NH3 is lighter than air and we
    are in a windy location, so it should blow up and away pretty quickly
    and safely. The worst NH3 accident I found was in North Dakota when 30
    rail tank cars went off the tracks right in a town. A rail car is over
    30,000 gallons. One person died who was outside his house, near the
    tracks. The newspaper reports said the effects were worsened because
    of the severe cold (-5 deg) and the lack of wind. In a warmer climate,
    the NH3 would have risen faster.

    NH3 is extremely hydrophilic, which means it is very quickly absorbed
    by water. If a tank ruptured below sea level, there would be very
    little gas release, since it would be absorbed by the ocean.

    Certainly health and safety issues are paramount, and we need to make
    sure everybody understands the issues. One the people I talked with at
    the NH3 conference designs "Super-safe Large Anhydrous Ammonia Tanks"
    precisely to minimize the likelihood of catastrophic releases:

  4. Thanks for the reply. Any chance you could post a map of ocean depths around Matinicus? The general rule of thumb for large wind turbines is that they should be at least one mile from a residence to mitigate sound issues. Of course with anything Matinicus related...even sound is impacted by the weather conditions.

  5. Here is a link to chart 13303: http://www.charts.noaa.gov/OnLineViewer/13303.shtml

    My original thought was to put a single 5 MW turbine on the 21 foot spot right above the "i" of "Matinicus Roads", so it would be evenly split between the two islands. It is also already in a legal Cable Area, so that is one less permit to get. If we need to go to two turbines, I am not sure the best locations.

    Perhaps if we need to go farther away, put them near the #4 Bell off of Sou'west Point, Criehaven.

    Regarding your comment about putting a turbine on Two Bush, that is very close to the protected bird sanctuary of No Man's Land, so almost certainly would not be permitted.

    An in-water turbine will make more sense for us because of lower construction costs. A ships comes and drops the turbine into place, typically in less than a week. Otherwise, a huge construction crew come out and builds infrastructure. It took months for the Vinalhaven turbines to get installed, and they had good ferry service, large docks, chartered transportation vessels, etc.

    When I get a chance, I will post the detailed wind map.