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Business and Economy

Biden's Call For Rapid Offshore Turbine Development Faces Stiff Headwind From Maine Fishermen

Wind Power
Robert F. Bukaty
/
AP
Lobstermen and their families attend a rally to protest Maine Gov. Janet Mills' support for offshore wind projects, Wednesday, April 28, 2021, in Augusta, Maine.

Last week, President Joe Biden told federal regulators that to combat global warming, they should speed up the deployment of offshore wind-energy turbines, with the goal of supplying enough to power 10 million homes by the end of this decade.

Wind power advocates in Maine say that ratifies their argument that the state must get into the game now or get left behind. But the White House directive is also amplifying fears among fishermen that they're the ones who will be left behind.

Most offshore wind energy projects around the world are sited in relatively shallow waters, where their foundations can easily be driven into the ocean floor. But that won't work so well off Maine, where the coastal shelf drops abruptly and the strongest, most consistent winds blow over waters that are more than 200 feet deep.

"We could not fix the turbines to the seabed," says University of Maine engineering professor Habib Dagher, who has worked for more than a decade to design a system that would suit deeper waters.

Inspiration came, Dagher says, after a trip to Europe, where turbine platforms fixed to the seabed are common.

"Came back here and figured out we gotta do something different, and we gotta float 'em. And that's when we started looking at floating turbines. At the time people thought we were completely insane," he says.

The idea's sanity is being tested in a 100,000-square-foot facility on the Orono campus. It's a wind-and-wave machine as big as a movie theater, a pool with a giant fan and water paddles at one end and a true-to-scale wind turbine, about eight feet tall, floating at the other.

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Fred Bever
Habib Dagher (left) and Anthony Viselli at a test facility at the University of Maine in Orono.

Right now the setup is modeling conditions found near Monhegan Island. That's where a consortium that includes the university and international partners such as the Mitsubishi Corp. aims to deploy a $100 million prototype tower and turbine in 2023.

"The toughest technical challenge is developing a technology that can be made in Maine and that's cost effective," Dagher says.

The solution: Sit the turbine on a floating concrete platform. Concrete actually has enough air in it to float, when properly shaped. So the platforms can be made in Maine, from materials mined in Maine.

Dagher and facility staff ramp up the lab's conditions to what in the real world would be a 500-year storm, with 70-foot waves. The turbine sways like a tipsy sailor. But it stays upright, its anchor lines hold and it weathers the indoor storm.

For Dagher, it's proof-of-concept for a venture he says could draw $10 billion-20 billion in capital investment over a 30-year period, creating thousands of short- and long-term, clean-energy jobs for Maine.

"The engineering challenges we've solved relatively quickly. But it's really the business end of it, how do we make it in Maine, how do we keep the jobs in Maine, is what we focused on quite a bit. And that's been a tough challenge but I think we've got a really good solution," he says.

Gov. Janet Mills agrees — a contrast with her predecessor, former Gov. Paul LePage, who tried to stifle offshore wind development and who could mount a campaign against her next year.

Mills is steaming ahead, and in November, she announced that the state would seek a federal lease to situate 12 commercial-scale turbines 20-40 miles offshore, to hook into the electricity grid in Yarmouth or Wiscasset.

She says the "research array" would put Maine's stamp on the floating-platform niche before bigger commercial projects get underway off Maine's coast, and provide a preemptive focus on ways to protect local ecosystems and economies.

But out in Friendship Bay, about 14 miles due north of Monhegan, skepticism runs deep.

"I don't know anyone that wants to be a guinea pig for this stuff," says Dustin Delano, vice president of the Maine Lobstermen's Association. He fishes territory that lies within the broad area where the governor's team is looking to site the 12-turbine energy park.

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Fred Bever
Dustin Delano, Friendship lobsterman and vice president of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association.

"Gov. Mills wants this to be her legacy. She wants to have the first offshore floating wind farm in the United States. And that's why she's racing to get this done, at our expense. I don't care what anybody says, she's going to trade one industry for another," he says.

A few weeks ago Delano joined about a hundred fishermen who staged an on-the-water protest. Its immediate target was the activity of a specialized survey ship seeking the best trench-line for cable between the Monhegan project and Boothbay.

And Delano was one of more than 400 who protested in Augusta this week against the entire concept of siting wind farms off Maine.

"I love to fish. I want to continue fishing, but I also do not want to see my environment destroyed by offshore monstrosities," says Matt Gilley of Harpswell, who was among the speakers at the protest.

Gilley says that in recent stakeholder webinars, state officials were unable to answer basic questions about floating wind farms — how huge anchor cables, electromagnetic fields, turbine noise and navigation hazards might harm marine life or fishermen.

"They didn't know. They brought in a scientist from Scotland, an environmental scientist that was supposed to have done all these studies on the effect of windmills on sea life. When I asked what the effect was on North American lobster, they didn't know," he says.

And fishermen are taking small comfort from the governor's proposal for a 10-year moratorium on wind projects in state-controlled waters, which stretch roughly three miles from shore.

The majority of the state's lobster fleet fishes within that line, but offshore fishermen say if they are shut out of traditional grounds by offshore turbines, they'll have to move inshore, crowding access to the lobster resource.

Winter Harbor Rep. William Faulkingham, a Republican, has introduced a bill that aims to limit energy infrastructure in federal and state waters. But even he says he is unsure of whether it is legally possible to limit the authority of the federal Bureau of Energy Management. And with Mills in the Blaine House and her party in control of the Legislature, his measure likely faces rough water.

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Fred Bever
Anti-wind signs along coastal Route 1 in Maine.

Fishermen like Delano have become disaffected, and they are opting out of the governor's stakeholder forums. And they say relations with the state's Department of Marine Resources, usually considered a good-faith partner, are fraying.

"We were asked to participate, but we're being told, 'You're getting it.' So why would we want to participate?" Delano says. "Why would I want to participate in my own demise? I'd rather take my energy and try to fight it."

Wind-energy backers are trying to keep them engaged, saying their input is vital for siting protocols most compatible with ecosystems and fisheries.

"And the risk is now, with a Biden mandate to go fast, that they would skip over all of that ocean spatial planning. And so that's where the research array fits in, to allow ocean-spatial planning to be informed by actual impacts of floating offshore wind," says Chris Wisseman, a principal in New England Aqua Ventus, the lead developer of the projects planned off Maine.

Wisseman is also CEO of Diamond Offshore wind, a subsidiary of the Mitsubishi Corp.

Another project partner is RWE Renewables, whose coal and other fossil-fuel energy projects in Europe make it the EU's largest emitter of global warming pollution, although RWE has made a commitment to ramp down its carbon footprint to zero by 2040.

Wisseman's been involved in a number of big energy developments, including Deepwater Wind, which developed the first offshore wind array in the U.S., at Rhode Island's Block Island.

He says without the research and data the early Maine projects would produce, the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, or BOEM, might just dismiss local concerns.

"The best fish are always where you want to build something, right? According to the fishermen. So data is paramount and BOEM will be moved by data," Wisseman says.

Back in Orono, Dagher insists that there are ways that fishing can continue within the wind farms' footprint.

"We have lot of respect for everybody who earns their living on the water. They're part of the DNA of the state of Maine and our goal is to be able to work together to benefit all of Maine. Let's roll up our sleeves and find answers," he says.

The question many fishermen are asking, though, is whether they can move their own state government to slow the process down or even stop it.