New England task force convenes to plan the next phase of offshore wind development
Last year, President Joe Biden announced plans to start leasing areas of the Gulf of Maine to offshore wind energy developers by 2024.
On Thursday, May 18, the federal Bureau Of Ocean Energy Management convened a task force of officials from Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and tribal governments to consider the next phase in the push to stand up a new "green" industry off the shores of Northern New England.
Leases for wind projects have been stacking up the past few years off Atlantic states from Massachusetts south. Attention now turns to the Gulf of Maine, where deeper waters will likely require deployment of new "floating platform" technologies that Maine researchers and international developers are pioneering.
"So the Gulf of Maine, off the coast of Maine, floating is the only option. We don't have any other options," said Habib Dagher, the University of Maine engineering expert who has led development of a prototype floating-platform wind turbine in state waters off Mohegan Island.
Dagher is also part of the team that has proposed a larger array of as many as a dozen turbines in federal waters off the midcoast, aimed at researching the technology's viability and its effects on ecosystems and fisheries.
Officials at the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management on May 18 outlined their plans for handling Gov. Janet Mills' proposed 16-square-mile lease site for the research array.
Backers such as Dagher say it can set a course early for responsible development of commercial-scale projects off the East Coast.
"The next wave of projects in New England and New York and New Jersey, once this first phase goes through, will likely be floating. Because you've essentially saturated the fixed-bottom areas and you're going to go to floating afterwards," he said.
Diverse interests in Maine are anxious to put the state on the forefront of that next phase.
A day before the gathering, an unusual group of Maine conservation, business and labor leaders got together on a Portland bluff overlooking Casco Bay to say that they support offshore wind.
"You won't often find us in agreement with each other. I think it's fair to say that. But on this issue, we are," said Dana Connors, president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce.
Connors shared the podium with representatives of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, Maine Audubon and the Maine Building and Construction Trades Council.
"This project brings together uniting advantages to our economy, our environment, and meeting our energy needs," Connors said. "Developing this resource in Maine will create a new industry built here in Maine by Maine people for the benefits of our state."
During the legislative session, the chamber and union forces fought over a measure that will require the research array to be constructed under the terms of a "Project Labor Agreement" that favors use of union workers. Mills allowed the measure to be enacted without her signature.
"As we put in place agreements like we have with the research array to make sure that Mainers have the opportunity to move forward and put these tremendous structures in place with home-grown talents so they can then pivot and be productive members of their communities with family-sustaining wages," said Jason Shedlock, president of the Maine Building Trades Council.
There was one stakeholder group absent from the press event: fishermen. Maine lobstermen and other seafood harvesters are deeply worried about the technology's effects on fisheries and in most cases outright opposed to its development off Maine.
NRCM energy director Jack Shapiro said that conservation groups that support renewable energy such as wind nonetheless share the fishermen's goals for ocean resources.
"Truly the deep generational knowledge, operational knowledge, in the Gulf of Maine is going to be really important to make sure we're doing everything we can to minimize the impacts on existing ocean users while we're also meeting the urgent challenge of climate change," he said.
The NRCM and other regional conservation groups sent a letter this month to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management calling for a thorough, up-front environmental impact review of the entire Gulf of Maine, before developers propose any lease sites. BOEM usually does such detailed reviews only after lease proposals are made.
Patrice McCarron of the Maine Lobstermen's Association said she supports the more rigorous approach.
"I think it is absolutely the right first step for any federal agency to bring in an industrialization of that resource to have a proper baseline of what we're looking at," she said.
Mills and the governors of New Hampshire and Massachusetts have also called for early and comprehensive research of Gulf ecosystems and fisheries.