Planting a STEM school in Portland

As soon as Freeport educator John Jaques heard the news that Governor Paul LePage had signed the bill to allow charter schools in Maine, he turned to the professional networking site LinkedIn, where he had cultivated a circle of contacts who share his interest in education reform. "I've always been unhappy with the status quo," he says. He began talking to people about his idea for a charter school in downtown Portland, one focused on STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and math) with a project-based approach. From there, the former social studies teacher (who has also taught technology in towns around Maine) put together an advisory team that includes the director of teacher education at Harvard, the creative director of LL Bean, and the founder and president of the sustainable printing firm Designtex (formerly Portland Color).

Now, Baxter Academy for Technology and Science is poised to be one of the first (if not the first) approved charter schools in the state. They've located a suitable space (in the old Media Power building on York Street) and intend to sign a lease once (if) their charter is approved by the newly appointed state commission, which will start meeting in January. Jaques is confident they'll get the thumbs-up by May. Meanwhile, applications are rolling in from "reform-minded teachers" around New England, says Jaques, who plans to hire between 10 and 12 full-time staffers with additional part-time positions. The goal is to admit 80 freshmen and 80 sophomores for the 2012-13 school year, with another 80 freshmen arriving in September 2013, and so on. The students, who Jaques expects will come from about 15 "feeder middle schools" within a 25-mile radius, who will have access to top-of-the-line tech products, including laptops, tablets, and Google Apps for Education.

"There's no purpose in building a school that looks like every other school," Jaques says.


Blowing in the (offshore, backyard) wind

Maine may soon become a test site for deep-water offshore floating wind turbines, setting the stage for commercial development in the future. Late in 2011, the North American branch of a Norwegian company submitted an application to lease an area of ocean about 12 miles off the shore of Boothbay, in order to evaluate environmental impacts, sea-bed conditions, and wind speeds. Statoil North America Inc. will submit construction and operation plans over the next year, during which time we are likely to see extensive input from Habib Dagher and his team at the Advanced Structures and Composites Center at the University of Maine at Orono.

Dagher, one of the speakers at last year's TEDxDirigo conference (see below), is a renowned expert in deep-water offshore wind energy; the floating turbines he proposes would be mammoth (the blades alone are more than 200 feet long), and not anchored to the ocean floor. Producing them in Maine would create jobs at companies like Bath Iron Works and Cianbro Corporation. Siting them off the coast of Maine, however, would likely engender pushback from environmental associations and fishing groups. And there is the additional question of how best to transmit power from the deep-water turbines to the mainland grid.

While such offshore and mountaintop wind farms continue to generate significant corporate interest — and public controversy related to the environmental impacts — another approach is emerging that could ditch the controversy and the far-worse-than-wind alternative, fossil fuels. Rather than building large banks of massive wind turbines in relatively secluded places that are relatively untouched by humans, and connecting those locations to the regional power grid with high-capacity transmission lines, what if we built smaller turbines in more places, closer to where the energy is needed?

Windependence, a Maine-based outfit advocating for "community wind development" (also called small-scale wind), will bring nearly a dozen experts on the topic to Freeport and Augusta next week. The speakers, who are involved with existing projects around the Northeast, will discuss technical, financial, logistical, and other issues to help attendees plan local wind projects that can power schools, farms, ski areas, and other businesses. One key element, net energy billing, is already in place in Maine, allowing people to connect to Central Maine Power, Bangor Hydro, and other local electrical utilities to get electricity when the wind isn't blowing, and letting them sell excess power back to the grid if they're generating more than they need.

Could Portland spearhead such development? We'll see. The Portland City Council held a public hearing on Wednesday (after this issue went to press) to consider the enactment of "a wind energy ordinance that would allow various types of wind-energy generation systems in most city zones, including residential, business, industrial and recreation open space zones," according to a public notice. "It includes, but is not limited to, performance standards, height limits, and a detailed sound standard."

Meanwhile, local wind projects on the Portland waterfront and Peaks Island have proved disappointing.

Still, this could be a low-cost, high-convenience, low-impact, high-yield way to bring domestic energy production up, fossil-fuel consumption down, and help Maine move into the future of green energy. Learn more, and sign up for the talks (many of which are free), at  mainewindependence.org.

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