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Offshore wind is coming to Maine. Here’s what we know.

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Offshore wind is coming to Maine. Here’s what we know.

Feb 20, 2024 | 4:35 pm ET
By AnnMarie Hilton
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Offshore wind is coming to Maine. Here’s what we know.
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VolturnUS is UMaine's patented floating concrete hull technology that has been awarded 43 patents in the U.S. and abroad. (University of Maine image)

Labor unions, environmental advocates and many lawmakers are looking to Maine’s budding offshore wind industry to help transition the state into the future, as a climate-friendly driver of investment and jobs. 

On Tuesday. Gov. Janet Mills announced that Sears Island on the northern tip of Penobscot Bay would be the location of a new port from which floating turbines would be assembled and launched into the Gulf of Maine. 

This isn’t the first time Maine has tried to procure the alternative energy source.

Back in 2010, the state began working with international oil and gas company Statoil on a $120 million offshore wind pilot project that never came to fruition. Then-Gov. Paul LePage was opposed to the project, arguing it didn’t provide enough benefits to the state, as reported by Bangor Daily News in 2013.

“We had the chance to do this 15 years ago, and we blew it,” said Kathleen Meil, senior director of policy and partnerships for Maine Conservation Voters, referring to the failed wind project. 

But last legislative session, Mills signed a law that not only brought offshore wind back to life, but did so with high labor and environmental standards, which she says will help build quality jobs while achieving the goal of having infrastructure to create three gigawatts — enough to power between 675,000 and 900,000 homes — installed by the end of 2040.

Why offshore wind?

Wind is a clean, renewable source of energy that has been growing in popularity as the U.S. and individual states have tried to diversify energy sources to rely less on fossil fuels. 

The Gulf of Maine has long been eyed as another viable location for the floating turbines.

Europe has four existing floating wind farms; in the U.S. there is one under construction off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts and another off Long Island, New York. 

Offshore projects in some other Atlantic states saw wind developers pull out last year due to rising costs under inflation. However, the Oceantic Network, a wind industry trade group, released a report Tuesday projecting that with the market stabilizing and continued momentum and investment from states and the federal government, wind power will continue to grow in 2024.

The Biden administration has set a goal of 30 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2030, the rough equivalent of more than 30 large power plants.

Maine has set ambitious clean energy goals. In 2023, Mills set a new target for Maine to use 100% clean energy by 2040

Offshore wind development in the Gulf of Maine has the potential to generate up to 156 gigawatts of power, which is more than 70 times the amount of electricity used by the entire state, according to a study by Maine Audubon.

Where will the turbines be located?

On Tuesday, Mills laid out half a dozen reasons why she believes the 941-acre Sears Island is the best choice financially and environmentally for the people of Maine, although she emphasized that she didn’t make the decision lightly. 

Since the state already owns the land, it will minimize upfront costs and eliminate the potential for leasing, making Sears Island more cost-effective in the short- and long-term, Mills said. She didn’t provide an exact number, but Mills said the entire project could ultimately cost several hundreds of millions of dollars.

The island also has the required physical characteristics, namely a large, level surface with access to deep water. 

Knowing that some people may be unhappy about the decision, Mills said she has hiked the island and circumnavigated it by boat so she understands the appreciation for the island. In 2009, the state put about 600 acres — two-thirds of the island — into a permanent easement. That portion will remain untouched by the port, which will be built on about 100 acres outside of the protected area. 

The actual wind turbines will float somewhere in the Gulf of Maine. 

The floating array is proposed to include 10-12 turbines on semi-submersible floating concrete platforms known as VolturnUS, which were designed by the University of Maine’s Advanced Structures and Composite Center.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) is responsible for mapping out specifically where in the water they will be. Some draft maps have been released, but a final version hasn’t been published yet. 

What about the impact on fishing?

Fishing groups, labor unions and environmental organizations have asked BOEM to avoid a key area for lobster fishing (known as Lobster Management Area 1) in potential development areas. 

Gov. Mills, congressional delegation want vital fishing area free of offshore wind development

Draft maps have avoided nearly all of that fishing zone, but Mills and Maine’s congressional delegation want to protect the entire area from potential development. 

Regardless of how much of that fishing area is included in the final map, the laws governing offshore wind development include financial incentives for developers to avoid key lobster fishing areas, Meil said.

Are there environmental concerns?

Everything humans do has an impact on the environment, explained Nicholas Lund, advocacy and outreach manager for Maine Audubon. 

Those impacts need to be weighed relative to each other, so compared to onshore wind and the effects of climate change, Lund said offshore wind “is a fantastic option for the state.”

For years, Sarah Haggerty has focused on the intersection of renewable energy and wildlife habitats as a conservation biologist for Maine Audubon. With that research, she said at the press conference Tuesday that she believes that “offshore wind can successfully coexist with wildlife here in the Gulf of Maine.”

The study from Maine Audubon outlines what is and isn’t known about how the wind turbines will interact with wildlife and affect the environment around them. 

Most existing offshore wind farms use turbines that are fixed onto the seabed, but those in the Gulf of Maine will float because of how deep the water is. The newer technology combined with gaps in knowledge of how wildlife behave in the Gulf leave some unanswered questions about impacts above and below the water, the study says. 

Marine mammals are sensitive to underwater noise, so that is an area of concern, Lund said. Unlike other offshore wind farms, Maine’s floating turbines won’t need to be drilled into the seabed, eliminating that source of noise. However, Lund said there is some concern about the noise from operating the turbines, but it will likely be similar to that of a small- or medium-sized boat. 

When it comes to birds, there are some worries that seabirds could collide with the turbine blades or be displaced. Some of them may even be more attracted to the turbines following any fish that are similarly drawn to the area, Lund said. To mitigate this, Lund said there will be efforts to ensure that turbines are placed as far as possible from areas where those seabirds tend to populate.

Migratory birds tend to fly higher than the turbines will be tall and concentrate inland and on the coast. Those flight paths can be drawn down in certain weather, though, so Lund said there are strategies like adding a light to the turbines that could possibly protect migratory birds. 

Lund also pointed out that avoiding key lobster fishing areas not only benefits the fishing industry, but also protects the lobsters. 

Will this create new jobs?

A new industry means new jobs, Meil said, noting that advocates who supported the bill as it moved through the Legislature were specific about what they wanted those jobs to look like. That’s why certain labor standards were written into the law. 

“Building a new industry means creating a lot of new jobs and we have the opportunity to be really thoughtful and intentional about what those jobs look like and to make sure that they are well paying, family-sustaining jobs,” she said. 

When applying for an offshore wind project, construction firms need to have a plan for “diversity, equity and inclusion in employment and contracting for the project,” according to the adopted bill language. 

Firms must also show they have or will have a “labor peace agreement” with an organization representing employees who work for or will provide services in connection with offshore wind power. Under the agreements, which are a compromise between workers and the employer, companies usually agree not to bust a union. In exchange, workers would give up their right to strike. 

According to the Mills administration, new workforce opportunities will cover nearly 120 occupations in Maine, such as engineering, electricians, metalworkers, marine operations, surveying, boat building and maintenance, and research and development.

What does offshore wind mean for energy ratepayers in Maine?

While the details of the rate agreement with the state’s Public Utilities Commission are still being worked out, the Mills administration believes the investment in wind will have long-term benefits to ratepayers.

Maine relies on natural gas to support much of its energy needs, so diversifying power sources can help stabilize prices for ratepayers, said Dan Burgess, director of the Governor’s Energy Office, at the press conference about Sears Island. 

“This is an investment in Maine-made, clean energy that we think will stabilize rates,” Burgess said of offshore wind. He added, “the more we can do homegrown, the better.”

When selecting offshore wind developers, the state will be required to pick those that are “cost-effective to electric ratepayers over the term of the contract,” the bill passed last year states. 

That bill also created a Fishing Community Protection and Low-income Ratepayer Fund, which is part of the incentive to avoid building in commercial fishing areas and will assist low-income ratepayers. Projects that plan on applying for grants from that fund will be given priority, as outlined in the bill.