A new task force will convene for the first time Thursday to consider how and where to lease potentially vast swathes of the Gulf of Maine to offshore wind-energy developers. The outcome could have big consequences for Maine's fishing industry, and for the state's role in the next wave of renewable energy development.
An earlier round of auctions awarded leases in federal waters off southern New England, where several large-scale wind projects should soon start churning out thousands of megawatts of electricity — a big down payment on state commitments to ramp up the use of renewable energy.
Now, at New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu's request, the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is starting a new process to designate the best areas for offshore wind projects farther north — in the Gulf of Maine. Analysts say investments could be worth billions of dollars, with thousands of jobs in the offing.
"This is a really significant opportunity for our energy future and economy," says Dan Burgess.
Burgess directs Maine Gov. Janet Mills' energy office, and he is leading the state's delegation to the intergovernmental task force that will advise the Bureau Of Ocean Energy Management. The panel also includes representatives from New Hampshire, Massachusetts, tribal governments and the feds.
One challenge for Maine, Burgess says, will be to pursue offshore wind opportunities without harming fishing or shipping industries and the Gulf's ecosystems.
"Any development really does have to consider existing commercial maritime interests and habitat as well. And we really do want to bring that full lens to this process."
Burgess says some major wind developers are showing interest in Maine. That would mark a change from the sector's recent doldrums in the state.
Jeremy Payne, the executive director of the Maine Renewable Energy Association, says former Gov. Paul LePage stalled ocean wind development off Maine when he intervened in an offshore energy bid that had been won by a Norwegian company called Statoil — which prompted the company to withdraw from the state altogether.
"Reputationally, the state really suffered, particularly in the last couple of years of the LePage Administration when there was so much uncertainty created by the Governor's constant public criticism,” says Payne. “So companies that were interested in Maine either started looking elsewhere or, at a minimum, put their early development projects on the back burner."
But Mills and the Legislature got things back under way again this year, directing utility regulators to finalize a contract for electricity from a pilot project for a floating turbine system led by the University of Maine, called Aqua-Ventus, to be located in state waters off Monhegan Island.
It's an important first effort, Payne says. He notes that the continental shelf extends far offshore of southern New England, allowing for the installation of well-developed fixed-platform wind technologies in those relatively shallow waters. But off Maine, the shelf drops off closer to shore, which would force the use of more experimental floating platforms.
But if the feds open up new lease areas, and Maine lawmakers authorize new long-term contracts, Payne says, the market is likely to follow.
"And perhaps a year or so from now we'll see another procurement, and that really will get the industry's attention and say 'you need to look at Maine.'"
But that worries some in the state's fishing industries. Ben Martens is the executive director of the Maine Coast Fishermen's Association.
"I think this could be much bigger than whales when it comes to the impacts it could have on our fishing industry in the Gulf of Maine," he says.
Martens says offshore wind development could rival pending federal action to protect endangered North Atlantic right whales that, right now, has the lobster industry up in arms.
He says fishermen are concerned about conflict with the multiple anchors and cables needed for floating platforms. And in the Monhegan area, he adds, fishermen feel burned by their experience with Aqua Ventus.
"They've really bungled the rollout of that project, to the extent where fishermen just don't trust them anymore because they keep on changing, they keep updating, the story is different every time they talk to the fishing communities,” says Martens. “And so there's a lot of fear right now around offshore wind that didn't exist before that project started."
Aqua Ventus officials could not be reached for comment.
State Energy Director Dan Burgess notes that there will be representatives of the Maine's Department of Marine Resources on the offshore wind task force. And fishing industry representatives will participate in Bureau Of Ocean Energy Management processes as well.
The agency's guidelines call for lease areas to be identified within two years, and for leases to be auctioned within four.