ROCKPORT, Maine — Harnessing the ocean’s winds and currents to create energy could bring jobs and wealth to Maine, but it also could stir up problems with the marine ecosystem.
That was the message delivered during a panel discussion on ocean energy during Saturday’s session of the 34th annual Maine Fishermen’s Forum at the Samoset Resort.
Department of Marine Resources Commissioner George LaPointe told the gathering that strict and detailed testing must be undertaken before any large-scale windmill or tidal projects would receive the state’s blessing. He said Gov. John Baldacci had created an Ocean Energy Task Force in order to ensure the marine ecosystem will not be harmed by massive projects.
“This is about sharing the ocean. We can do it well or we can do it not well,” LaPointe said. “We can share the ocean smartly if we can make informed decisions.”
LaPointe said testing would be critical to winning the support of the fishing community and environmental groups. He said it was unknown whether large energy projects would have an impact on fish stocks or whales. He said areas where fishing was heavy likely would have to be avoided, as would those where whales were known to travel.
“Before we have the Saudi Arabia of wind, we have to know what happens when there is a facility in the water,” he said.
Don Perkins of the Gulf of Maine Research Institute and co-chair of the energy task force said the panel was looking into the possibility of developing 3,000 megawatts of ocean power by 2020. As a comparison, Perkins noted that when Maine Yankee was up and running, it produced 1,000 megawatts.
“We’re talking about a lot of energy here,” he said.
Perkins acknowledged that determining the variables and balancing the needs of the community and the ecosystem was an “incredibly complicated question.” He noted that Maine had the highest percentage of per capita fossil fuel use in the country. He said where petroleum products account for about one-third of the average household budget, that figure will rise to one-half within 10 years.
“The good news is we have an extraordinary wind resource,” he said. “It’s really clear that we’re going to have to grapple with the issues in a pragmatic way.”
One pilot program already in the works is a tidal power site in the Westward Passage off Eastport. John Ferland of Ocean Renewable Power Co. said the project’s prototype equipment “generated electricity for the first time using Bay of Fundy tides” last spring.
He said his company was working with the Eastport community to plan and test its generator. He said the company has estimated the tides had a “250-megawatt potential,” and if a facility were put in service, it would create 300 jobs locally. A tidal project that size would cost an estimated $1 billion, Fereland said.
He said the company hoped to receive Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approval for a pilot project next year, and that a 100-megawatt project would be on line within five to seven years.
Ferland said the company was receiving assistance in developing its turbines from researchers at the University of Maine and Maine Maritime Academy. He said the young students working on the plan were inspired by the concept of ocean energy, and were working to create composites and components capable of generating energy from the tides.
“They are all over this. This is something they are very excited about,” Ferland said. “They see this as their way to stay in Maine and earn a living.”