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Feds grant Maine a lease for offshore wind research project

In this Friday, Sept. 20, 2013 photo, the University of Maine's 9,000-pound prototype wind turbine generates power off the coast of Castine, Maine. It was the country's first floating wind turbine.
Robert F. Bukaty
In this Friday, Sept. 20, 2013 photo, the University of Maine's 9,000-pound prototype wind turbine generates power off the coast of Castine, Maine. It was the country's first floating wind turbine.

The federal government has granted the state of Maine a lease for a floating offshore wind research station nearly 30 miles off the southern coast.

The dozen turbines located southeast of Portland would be the first floating, offshore wind research site ever deployed in federal waters. The administration of Gov. Janet Mills requested the lease from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) in 2021, kicking off a multi-year process that involved an environmental assessment, public meetings and engagement with the commercial fishing community.

The stated goal of the research project is to study the technology and how it interacts with the surrounding environment and marine life as well as ways to reduce potential conflicts with existing uses, such as commercial fishing. The research could then influence development of commercial-scale offshore wind in the Gulf of Maine, which Mills has made a critical piece of her administration's ambitious climate goals.

“Offshore wind offers our state a tremendous opportunity to harness abundant clean energy in our own backyard, to create good-paying jobs and drive economic development, and to reduce our over-reliance on fossil fuels and fight climate change," Mills said in a statement. "This offer of a lease is a major milestone in our effort to embrace these significant economic and environmental benefits for Maine and Maine people and is a recognition of our nation-leading work to responsibly develop this promising industry."

The Gulf of Maine's near-constant, blustery weather conditions make it one of the nation's most promising locations for offshore wind. But multiple commercial fishing organizations in Maine and New England have opposed the push by the Mills administration and federal regulators to develop offshore wind in the gulf, arguing that it could harm their industry and marine life.

The gulf's waters are too deep to utilize the type of turbines envisioned for many other offshore wind projects in shallower U.S. waters. Researchers at the University of Maine Advanced Structures and Composites Center and it's partner, Diamond Offshore Wind, have spent years developing floating wind turbine platforms that can be deployed in the gulf's deep waters.

A federal environmental assessment prepared as part of the lease determined that the research project would have "negligible to minor" impacts on marine mammals, fish, commercial fishermen and ship traffic. While the assessment acknowledged the risk of vessel strikes with whales as well as entanglement in with gear during the eight-year research project, the BOEM said most impacts would be avoided through mitigation steps and that any impacts would not affect the viability of most species.

One possible exception is the North Atlantic right whale, an endangered species that is at the heart of a years-long regulatory and legal battle between Maine's lobster industry, environmental groups and federal agencies.

But BOEM's assessment states, "the likelihood of a vessel strike or entanglement (with a right whale) as a result of the proposed action is considered very low given the expected limited total extent and duration of activities considered." Mitigation measures would further reduce that likelihood, the report states.