The Ten-Mile Extension Cord
It's easy to say that very little has changed in the past couple of hundred years on Vinalhaven. The stoic, weather-beaten fishermen still leave Carvers Harbor around dawn six summer mornings a week, tend traps that employ the same straightforward trickery they always have, and return the same valuable lobsters to the same wharfs their fathers and grandfathers did. Vehicle traffic downtown remains too light to warrant a signal. Most days, the island can seem far removed from the modern world. Until someone pulls the plug, that is.
Norah Warren has watched that plug — actually a thirty-year-old undersea electrical cord running across the floor of Penobscot Bay — get pulled more times than she can recall. During 2004 alone, island life came to a standstill fourteen times when the cable from Rockport to Vinalhaven and its well-to-do sister, North Haven, was snipped by passing cargo ships or else short-circuited by the motion of the shifting tides. For Warren, manager of the Fisherman's Co-op in Carvers Harbor, losing power means losing the aeration machine that supplies fragile lobsters with much-needed oxygen. It means losing the conveyor belt that helps load the lobsters into crates for shipping. It even means losing the freezers where bait is kept from spoiling and the gasoline pumps that fill the hundreds of generators that islanders have purchased as the frequency of blackouts has increased. Sometimes the outages lasted a few hours; once they lasted for two days.
"All you heard was, 'When are they going to get that cable replaced?' " says David Folce, the general manager of Fox Islands Electric Cooperative who helped win funding from the Rural Utilities Service and other sources for the new cable. The replacement arrived on twenty-square-mile Vinalhaven late last April in the form of a ten-mile-long electrical wire that was buried, unlike its predecessor, a full six feet below the ocean floor. Seizing upon a week of calm winds, a team of divers and engineers inched the six-inch-wide cable across the bay by unrolling it from a massive spool and feeding it into a hydraulic plow digging some three hundred feet below. The cable was carefully routed around rocky ledges too impenetrable for the plow; divers placed cement bags over it in the few spots where extra protection was necessary. "We did studies that determined even if someone was dragging an anchor across the bay, it would only penetrate three feet, so we feel pretty safe with this depth," Folce explains. Previously, even lobster traps accidentally snagged by oil tankers heading up to nearby Searsport were enough to disable the cable. And every time the wires needed to be spliced back together, Folce had to round up a crew of engineers — not to mention up to $50,000, depending on the severity of the break.
Within the new Swedish-built cord, three conductors provide the three-phase electricity necessary to run motors and other machinery used by the electric co-op's two-dozen commercial clients, including the IGA supermarket, Fisherman's Co-op, and the sewage-treatment plant. (In contrast, the old system consisted of four separate single-conductor cables. Folce says most outages knocked out at least two lines, requiring him to switch exclusively to single-phase service in order to get the island's 1,500 residents back online. Businesses might not have their three-phase power restored for a week or more.) The cable even includes a thirty-strand fiber-optic line that Folce hopes to market to a telephone and Internet service company, so that islanders can move away from the existing microwave telephone service and also receive faster Internet connections.
But reliability has a price. Co-op customers who paid eighteen cents per kilowatt-hour with the old cable are now paying thirty cents after the completion of the $7-million project, although some of that can be attributed to higher energy costs. Folce says islanders have offered few complaints so far. "People put up with it out here — it's better than being without power all the time," he says. "Any grumbling I've heard is because the prices have increased, but that's mostly on account of the energy costs, not because of the cable."
"I'm so relieved I haven't even noticed the increase in rates," declares Tidewater Motel owner Phil Crossman. "I have electric heat, so I was up against it year after year, especially in the winter. I used to turn the water off, but something would burst every time the power went out anyway." Crossman says his wintertime guests — mostly long-term workers on the island — became so used to the interruptions, they'd hardly flinch when the power would flicker off.
Warren, at the Fisherman's Co-op, says that while she hopes the new cable lives up to its billing, the outages taught her and other islanders the risks of depending too much on something from the mainland. "I think people want to be very confident in the new cable, but they've had a lot of problems in the past with electricity," she says.
Don't expect these islanders to throw out their backup generators soon.