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Promise of offshore wind power promoted by Mills, feared by fisherman

It's a sharp contrast between those who see opportunity and those who feel threatened

BRISTOL, Maine — On this brilliant winter day, you could stand on the rocks at Pemaquid Point with a clear view of Monhegan Island in the distance, and feel the wind coming off the water. There is often wind over the ocean, and that’s why there is such interest in developing offshore wind turbines in the Gulf of Maine.

Offshore wind power is a signature goal of the Mills administration and is seen as one of the ways to fight climate change by generating electricity without carbon emissions. 

“Offshore wind is a really significant opportunity for the state of Maine, for our energy future and economy,” Dan Burgess, Director of the Governor's Energy Office, said.

But the image of huge, floating wind turbines has many in Maine’s fishing industry very worried. Among them is lobsterman Gerry Cushman of Port Clyde, a leader in both the Maine Lobstermen’s Association and the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association. 

“And our message to the Governor is we hope you get behind the fishermen and help us fight this. We have no option but to fight this. We have to fight this not just for now but for our kids.”

It is a sharp contrast between those who see opportunity and those who feel threatened, and the Mills dministration is trying to navigate those turbulent waters.

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Offshore wind has been talked about in Maine for more than a decade, starting with former Gov. John Baldacci, who embraced a research proposal from the University of Maine to develop floating offshore platforms for huge wind turbines. Europe has deployed many wind turbines along its coast and in shallow waters, but at that time only Norway had developed a floating turbine. In the U.S., Rhode Island now has a few stationary turbines in the ocean, off Block Island, and Massachusetts now has the approval to build the latter Vineyard Wind project off Martha’s Vineyard, also with stationary turbines fastened to the seafloor. 

Maine’s vision, started by the University and embraced by Gov. Mills, is the floating platforms holding huge turbines, as tall as 600 feet, which could be anchored 20 to 40 miles out to sea, where the winds are consistently stronger. The University has received multiple federal grants for the design and built a small scale test platform, which was operated successfully in the waters off Castine.

Fishermen, and especially lobstermen have been worried about floating turbines for several years, fearing the size of the platforms, and the need for significant anchor cables running to the bottom and for large, underwater cables taking the electricity to shore will take away some of their fishing ground.

Those concerns were ratcheted up in November when Mills proposed a “research array” of floating turbines be located in federal waters, 20 to 40 miles offshore from the southern third of the Maine coast. The Mills administration has identified a large, general area it is considering but is asking fishermen to help identify a precise, 16-square mile portion where the proposal will be focused.

Cushman said the fishermen really don’t want the turbines anywhere.

“The Gulf of Maine looks huge but it's not, and 99 percent is being fished,” said Cushman.

"16 miles is not a little area, and maybe just the beginning, we don’t know."

He predicts fishermen will lose prime ground for lobstering, which will, in turn, cost them and the economy millions of dollars. 

On Monday, Mills sent a letter to fishermen, saying she understands their concerns, but that the need for fighting climate change is too important to not pursue offshore wind. And she warned that sooner or later the development will happen.

“Make no mistake about it, offshore wind is coming to the Gulf of Maine, even without my support,” the Governor wrote in the letter.

Dan Burgess of the Energy Office says there is significant interest in developing offshore wind, here and elsewhere.

“There is such interest in offshore wind, up and down the coast, and this research array really puts Maine in the driver's seat,” Burgess said.

The Governor tried to soften the blow in her letter by pledging a 10-year moratorium on wind development in state waters, inside the three-mile limit. She said wind turbines don't belong in those areas, which are heavily fished in the summer and early fall. There have been rumors of a company called Triton planning to build a large wind array in state waters, but no actual proposal has yet been revealed or submitted.

However, there is already one floating turbine project being planned in state waters, and it is not included in the moratorium. The project is known as Aqua Ventus and is planned as a full-size test of the University's floating platform design. It would be located on a test site approved ten years ago by the Maine Legislature, nearly three miles off Monhegan island. The project is now a partnership between the University and subsidiaries of two large, international offshore wind companies. Those businesses are planning to invest as much as $100 million to build and deploy the 600-foot turbine on a 350-foot wide floating platform. The goal is to test and prove the UMaine technology, with the hope it can then be used on other sites, including the proposed research array. 

“Our goal ultimately is to be in the water summer of 2023,” said Chris Wissman of New England Aqua Ventus, the official name of the partnership.

Wissman, too, said there is lots of interest in developing offshore wind power off Maine, calling that growth “inevitable.”

The Mills administration said it intends to keep pushing the proposal for the research array, seeking needed federal support to begin the needed studies for permits, hoping construction could begin on the water as soon as five years.

The Governor’s letter to the fishing industry said Mills hopes to continue talking about the concept with the fishing industry to identify the precise area of the ocean, and also identify problems. 

A coalition of fishing groups called the Responsible Offshore Development Alliance said they also support clean energy development to fight climate change but have deep concerns about offshore wind. The groups did say it will keep talking with the Governor’s office about the plan.