Two Island Co-ops Help Tiny Maine Co-op Solve Transformer Shortage Problem

Transformers donated by Fox Islands Electric Cooperative are loaded onto a lobster boat to be transported to Isle au Haut Electric Power Co. Both co-ops are located on islands off the coast of Maine. They are a 25-minute boat ride apart. (Photo Courtesy: Fox Islands Electric Cooperative)

Isle au Haut Electric Power Co., which serves an 8,000-acre island with just 40 year-round residents off the coast of Maine, is one of the most isolated electric cooperatives in the nation. But, as General Manager Bryan Carroll recently discovered, no co-op is truly an island.

Carroll, the only full-time employee at the 130-member co-op, needed a transformer for a new consumer-member and didn’t have one on hand that met the need. He also was looking to expand his small inventory of a half-dozen transformers, especially with global supply chain challenges continuing to make it difficult for co-ops to get the crucial equipment quickly.

“I was scouring the Eastern Seaboard for small 2,400-voltage transformers,” Carroll said, noting that most co-ops use bigger transformers than those on Isle au Haut’s system.

Carroll, whose co-op joined NRECA about a year and a half ago, reached out to Susan Mortensen, NRECA’s membership relationship manager, for help. She, in turn, contacted NRECA Chief Operating Officer Jeffrey Connor, who got in touch with Jeffery Wright, who is president and CEO of the Block Island Utility District in Rhode Island and also serves as a NRECA board member and president of the Northeast Association of Electric Cooperatives.

A few weeks later, Wright, one of his board members and his lead lineworker jumped in a truck with four of the co-op’s used, freshly painted transformers and headed north for Maine. After a seven-hour drive and a 45-minute trip on a mailboat from Stonington, Maine, the Block Islanders delivered the transformers to Carroll on Isle au Haut.

Jeffery Wright, left, president and CEO of the Block Island Utility District, and co-op Lead Lineworker Evan Carey bring four transformers to Isle au Haut on a mailboat. (Photo Courtesy: Block Island Utility District)

“It felt good to help Isle au Haut, and I know that help will come back to us someday,” said Wright, whose co-op serves about 1,950 members. “The island co-ops have got to stick together.”

As luck would have it, another island co-op, 1,600-member Fox Islands Electric Cooperative in Maine, was about to send its old transformers out to be recycled when CEO Amy Watson Turner learned that Isle au Haut needed some.

Tiny Isle au Haut Electric Power Co., which joined NRECA a year and a half ago, has just one full-time employee. (Photo Courtesy: Isle au Haut Electric Power Co.)

“They were already on a pallet, waiting to be picked up,” she said. “So, I was really glad that Bryan emailed me when he did. They were too low a voltage for us, but two of them were good, working transformers.”

Carroll got a ride in a lobster fisherman’s boat for the 25-minute trek from Isle au Haut to Vinalhaven to pick up the transformers, which weigh between 200 and 400 pounds each. With a total of six donated transformers, he has now doubled his co-op’s inventory.

“I think the lesson here is, ‘don’t be an island, even if you are an island,’” Turner said. “Reach out.”

Wright said it’s a great example of the sixth cooperative principle: Cooperation Among Cooperatives.

“The cooperative network is nearly 1,000 co-ops strong and it only takes one phone call for someone to come forward willing to help—even if it takes a 7-mile mailboat ride to get to you.”

Erin Kelly is a staff writer for NRECA.