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The plans for Maine's floating wind port, explained

The five turbines of America's first offshore wind farm, owned by the Danish company, Orsted, stand off the coast of Block Island, R.I., on Oct. 17, 2022.
David Goldman
AP file
The five turbines of America's first offshore wind farm, owned by the Danish company, Orsted, stand off the coast of Block Island, R.I., on Oct. 17, 2022.

The Maine Department of Transportation recently announced that it had applied for a $456 million federal grant to build a wind port on Sears Island.

The announcement marks another step in what will be a years-long effort by state officials to build out Maine’s third port, one that can support a nascent floating wind industry.

And though Maine has been discussing the possibility of a wind port for several years, a clearer picture of the plans is now beginning to form.

What are the plans?

The state of Maine wants to build a $760 million port that can specifically accommodate the assembly and deployment of floating wind turbines. The plans also call for the construction of a heavy-lift, semi-submersible barge that can launch the foundations needed to support floating wind turbines.

Maine, as it competes for federal grant funding, is trying to position itself as an ideal location for such a port.

There's a lot on the line.

The federal government, state of Maine and other New England states all have offshore wind energy goals. Maine wants to produce up to 3 gigawatts of offshore wind energy by 2040; Massachusetts has set a goal producing 10 gigawatts.

With its notoriously gusty winds, everyone is eyeing the Gulf of Maine as a potential renewable energy source. The Biden administration has said that potential wind energy areas identified in the gulf can generate at least 32 gigawatts of renewable energy.

Just this week, Maine was granted a lease from the federal government for a floating offshore wind research station about 30 miles off the southern coast. Maine will deploy a dozen floating wind turbines using technology developed by researchers at the University of Maine and its partner Diamond Offshore Wind. If they are successful, it will be the first floating offshore wind site ever deployed in federal waters.

A separate federal commercial process is not far behind the Maine research project. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management recently chose eight sites in the Gulf of Maine that could be auctioned off to eligible commercial wind developers later this year.

Both projects will need some kind of port facility that can serve as a home base, and so Maine is making the case that the port should be here, specifically on its preferred site of Sears Island, the largest undeveloped island in Penobscot Bay.

After all, state officials project that port construction would employ about 1,300 people in Maine and 350 workers to operate the facility once it's complete.

Why does Maine believe a wind port should be sited here?

Most offshore wind projects on the East Coast use fixed-bottom foundations to anchor turbines to the sea floor. But these foundations can only be used in water that's shallower than 200 feet.

The Gulf of Maine is too deep, which is why state officials, as well as researchers from the University of Maine and Diamond Offshore Wind, have been pursuing floating wind turbines.

There are currently no other East Coast ports that can specifically accommodate the assembly and deployment of floating wind turbines in the Gulf of Maine.

Massachusetts officials have said that the Salem Offshore Wind Terminal, which is under construction, may be able to support floating wind technology.

But Matt Burns, director of the Maine Port Authority, said Maine is trying to develop a facility that is purpose-built for the floating wind industry.

“If you look at the seven, eight other facilities that are being developed right now [on the East Coast], most of them are being developed with fixed bottom wind in mind,” Burns said in a recent interview. “We’re the only ones that are talking about being exclusive for the floating market.”

Any port that can support floating offshore wind needs at least 100 acres of contiguous land, free of railroad lines, roads or warehouses, Burns said. And that's partly because of the space requirements needed at these ports to assemble each floating turbine, which are massive.

Maine Department of Transportation

"They’re hundreds of feet wide. They weigh thousands of tons," Burns said. "It would be the equivalent of constructing a parking garage on the land and then having to move it into the water."

Burns also said Maine and the Searsport region are ideally situated as a potential floating wind hub, because they're relatively close to the areas of the gulf that the federal government wants to lease and develop.

It’ll take three tugboats to haul one floating turbine from Searsport to those sites about 110 nautical miles away in the Gulf of Maine, state officials said. The next closest capable port is 520 nautical miles away in New Jersey, Burns said.

"If we think of ourselves as the East Coast solution to floating offshore wind and the entire future of that industry to lift off from Maine, that's a hugely significant thing," Burns said.

How much will it cost?

Maine officials estimate that wind port construction will cost around $760 million. About two-thirds of the funds needed to build the port would come from the federal grant that Maine recently applied for, if it’s approved.

The rest, state officials say, would come from other federal, state and private sources — and eventually payments that the state might receive from developers that lease and build floating wind farms in the Gulf.

According to the state’s application materials, the port has its first tenant in Diamond Offshore Wind. Diamond would provide the state with its first lease payment once the port is constructed.

When will port construction begin?

Starting later this year, the state will apply for permits through the Maine Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

At the same time, Maine will pursue environmental impact assessments of the Sears Island site. DOT will prepare an analysis of alternative sites, which will include Mack Point.

The permitting and environmental impact processes will take a few years, likely through next year and part of 2026.

If the project receives all the proper permits, state officials say the port will be built in two phases. The first phase would be able to support the deployment of turbines for the research array. The second could handle the full-scale commercial wind farms that are envisioned for the Gulf of Maine.

Ultimately, the state envisions construction starting in 2027 and wrapping up some time in 2029.

Of course, everything depends on whether Maine wins the $456 million federal grant. Burns said the state could receive partial federal funding.

Why Sears Island?

This question remains a big sticking point for what appears to be a number of local residents, some environmental organizations and midcoast advocacy groups, and those who are simply opposed to offshore wind development entirely.

They argue that industrialized Mack Point in Searsport is the best place for a wind port.

“There’s such a sensible alternative 800 yards away — a 105-year-old working port, with a terminal operator that is ready, willing and able to take on the project and not to jeopardize their other operations,” said David Italiaander, a Searsport resident and board member for Friends of Sears Island. The group maintains the island's vast network of trails.

Maine Department of Transportation

Sprague Energy owns Mack Point and appears to be making its own push to host the state’s wind port. The company has said that its existing industrial waterfront could be repurposed to support Maine's plans. And Sprague said it has a new alternative plan that addresses some of the concerns the state has identified.

But there is a coalition of other conservation organizations, labor groups, the Maine Chamber of Commerce and others that want to see Sears Island redeveloped as a wind port and support the state's plan.

Maine DOT already owns the land that it wants to develop. The state also says that Sears Island wouldn't require dredging, but Sprague has said those requirements would be reduced under its new plan.

In the meantime, Italiaander and other Sears Island advocacy groups are poring through the details of DOT's federal grant application.

DOT, for example, has proposed relocating the Sears Island access road so it would cut through a corner of the conservation area.

That’s a concern, Italiaander said. Burns acknowledged that the land is protected and said the proposed road relocation is intended to better bifurcate the island into its two potential uses — port activity and recreation.

The debate over Sears Island will ramp up in the coming weeks and months.

Sprague Energy will host an event next month at the Mack Point terminal, where company leaders are expected to present their own alternative wind port design.

And Maine DOT is expected to release a much-anticipated analysis of alternative sites, which will include Mack Point.