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Proposal Would Build 16-Square-Mile Wind Farm Off Maine Coast

Michael Dwyer
Associated Press file
In this Aug. 15, 2016, file photo, wind turbines from the Deepwater Wind project stand in the sea off Block Island, R.I.

Gov. Janet Mills on Friday announced an ambitious, state-led effort to build as many as 12 floating wind-energy turbines off Maine’s coast.

Mills is on the hunt for a location for the array, in partnership with the University of Maine and the big-money investors behind the pioneering Aqua Ventus turbine experiment near Monhegan Island. But that’s got some fishermen worried.

The effort to win a so-called research lease from the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management will be led by Dan Burgess, director of the Governor’s Energy Office.

“The opportunity to work with these developers using the Maine-made, Maine-developed floating technology is just a really significant opportunity for the state and for us to continue to take a national and even global leadership position for floating offshore wind,” he says.

The Mills administration is pitching the project as small scale, needing “only” 16 square miles of ocean as compared to lease areas ten times as large for wind projects off southern New England. Still, with as many as 12 turbines running at a capacity of 10 megawatts each, Burgess says they could provide enough energy for 70,000-100,000 homes.

The site would be located 20-40 miles offshore in the Gulf of Maine, Burgess says — beyond the horizon line. And he adds the platforms would float in water somewhere between 50 and 200 meters deep — a contrast with the more traditional fixed-platform wind technologies, which require much shallower waters.

“There’s seven turbines in the water right now in the country, five off Rhode Island and two in Virginia. There’s many, many hundreds of thousands of megawatts in the pipeline up and down the East Coast and the West Coast. But this is really the first of its kind from a floating perspective in the country,” he says.

Burgess was reluctant to describe the project’s value, whether in terms of its potential construction costs, energy profits or jobs created. But a single-turbine prototype to be deployed off Monhegan Island by New England Aqua Ventus — a consortium that now includes the University of Maine’s engineering department and the Mitsubishi Corp. — is expected to create more than $125 million in economic activity and hundreds of jobs during the construction period.

Jeremy Payne, executive director of the Maine Renewable Energy Association, says Maine’s opportunity for offshore wind development has seemed to be just around the corner for at least a decade.

“And this feels like a really meaningful step toward significant progress and the potential for something economically transformative for the state. And given where we are in terms of a global recession it could not have come at a better time,” he says.

That doesn’t mean an instant proliferation of turbines in the Gulf, he adds. It will mean a wealth of new information, and not just about how the turbines perform.

“But how their performance is impacted by one another, how their performance is impacted by the current and then ultimately what happens underneath the water. It’s pretty easy for us to measure how much electricity are you generating and how much are you able to put on the grid. What’s less certain is ultimately, what is the marine life impact.”

And those marine effects have many in the state’s fishing communities deeply worried.

“I feel very anxious about this, I feel very unsettled about this. An offshore wind lease is at minimum a 30-year commitment. It’s a legacy for the fishing industry that cannot be undone,” says Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association. “That region is extremely important for Maine’s lobster fishery, our groundfish industry; we have emerging fisheries as climate changes and species shift from the mid-Atlantic and the South Atlantic, so it’s important today and it’s going to be extremely important in the future.”

The Mills administration is promising a robust stakeholder process as it decides on a lease site with leadership from the commissioner of marine resources, Patrick Keliher. McCarron says fishermen might have more confidence if the proposal had come from an existing, multistate task force she says would do a better job of choosing wind energy sites that consider the entire set of Gulf of Maine ecosystems.

The state’s move, she says, could open the floodgates for independent bid proposals, instead of waiting for the task force and the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to lead the bidding process.

One member of that task force, though, is pretty pleased: James Gilway, town manager in Searsport, whose deep-water port, served by a rail line, is a likely site for staging construction and deployment of the turbines.

“I’m glad that we stayed on the radar and that we’re moving forward now. Because our energy independence and creating green energy us important. It should be important to everyone,” he says.

Administration officials have told stakeholders the expect to choose a site in early 2021. Burgess says floating turbines could be generating electricity there within five years.

A Columbia University graduate, Fred began his journalism career as a print reporter in Vermont, then came to Maine Public in 2001 as its political reporter, as well as serving as a host for a variety of Maine Public Radio and Maine Public Television programs. Fred later went on to become news director for New England Public Radio in Western Massachusetts and worked as a freelancer for National Public Radio and a number of regional public radio stations, including WBUR in Boston and NHPR in New Hampshire.