Fox Islands Electric

A Good Job for
Written by Frank K. Gallant
Rural Electrification Magazine October 1983

Not much changes on Vinalhaven Island.  The economy-what there is of it-revolves around lobstering, just as it did 100 years ago.  A Hopkins ran the only board in the 1940’s; a Hopkins runs the only boat yard today.  In 1770, Issac Arey bought 700 of Vinalhaven’s 10,000 acres; there still are Areys on the town’s tax rolls.  Even the year-round residency of Sixties pop artist Robert Indiana has had little changing effect. “He keeps to himself,” according to postmistress Helen Boland, with his dog and 10 cats, in an ancient ark of building on Main Street.

One thing that has changed on this island 15 miles off the coast of Maine and its sister island, North Haven, is the electric utility, ad this has meant the difference between reliable electric service and daily outages.

When we last visited Vinalhaven nine years ago, the slightly more than 1,000 islanders bought their electricity from Vinalhaven Light & Power Co.  This tiny investor-owned utility had served the two islands well for most of this century, but by now it had been run into the ground.  An REA engineer who had inspected its distribution lines was “astounded that anything worked.”  Low voltage running through the lines destroyed refrigerators, furnace motors and televisions.  If you ran a business and you needed to put a large load on the line, you had to call the powerhouse first, so they could start up another diesel generator.

During the winter of 1973-74, Vinalhaven Light & Power reached its nadir.  Dayswent by without a generator competing with the noise from the foghorn outside Carver’s Harbor.  By summer, Vinalhaven and North Haven had what people were calling “hour power,” one hour on and one hour off.

Vinalhaven’s selectmen asked REA for help and pretty soon the idea of forming an electric cooperative was as frequent a topic of public conversation as the wholesale price of lobster.  At a special town meeting in October 1974, the islanders, by an 80 percent majority, voted to organize a co-op, eventually named Fox Islands Electric Cooperative, that would buy out Vinalhaven Light & Power.  (Principal owner Herb Peterson was a willing seller, having recently worked himself into exhaustion trying to provide even the most minimal service.)  Chairman of the selectmen Grant Duell was elected president, just as he was again at last July’s annual meeting, after a few years out of co-op office.

Two years later, with a the help of a loan from REA, the new co-op was laying a 10-mile submarine electric cable between North Haven and Central Maine Power Company’s lines at Rockport, on the mainland.  The cable was energized in 1977, notwithstanding the litigant protests of a scallop fisherman whose feelings about that part of the Atlantic Ocean off North Haven were proprietary.

Today the bad years are being forgotten, even by the few independent-hearted Downeasterners who don’t like the idea of needing to belong to a cooperative-or to any group.  Even they can count on the electric coffee maker working when they have to make the 7:30 A.M. ferry to Rockland on a snow-spitting February morning.

For boatyard owner Kevin Hopkins, who was working at a power grinding wheel when I interrupted him early on a cool July morning, having reliable electric service means not “having to hurry to finish a job before the power goes off.”  For Bob Drake, who I met on the ferry going to Vinalhaven and who has “a camp” on the east side of the island he uses about half of the year, it means being able to plug in the portable computer terminal he uses to write an occasional editorial for the mainland newspaper from which he recently retired.

“It’s been good power since they switched over,” say Hopkins.  Bruce Grindle, 84 who with his cousin runs a hardware store on Main Street, apparently agrees.  “The boys who went to Washington to get that money, they really did a good job for Vinalhaven.”

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