NORTHPORT, Maine — Converting ocean winds into electricity could be a boon for the state but many obstacles need to be resolved before it can become a reality.
That was the message former Gov. Angus King delivered Wednesday to more than 200 people attending the second Maine Coastal Waters Conference at Point Lookout.
King said the state will need to factor the needs of shipping, fisheries and environmental groups when siting wind generators offshore. In addition, the technology to harness that energy has yet to be developed, he said.
“It is an engineering challenge and a regulatory challenge,” King said. “A lot of people focus on the impact on fishing, shipping, whales and birds. What are the impacts if we don’t do it? What are the impacts of doing nothing?”
The conference focused on issues of concern to those who manage, study and love the Maine coast and was sponsored by a number of federal and state agencies. Sea level rise, climate change and ocean energy were among the topics discussed by researchers and public officials.
A member of the state’s Ocean Energy Task Force, King said the Gulf of Maine has enough wind potential, that if fully developed, could provide electric power for all of New England and parts of New York. He estimated that 10,000-20,000 jobs could be created through wind energy development.
Maine is highly dependent on fossil fuels with more than 90 percent of the oil consumed in the state going to heating homes and powering vehicles. He said electricity represents about 10 percent of the overall energy use in Maine. He said 80 percent of the state’s homes were heated by oil, none of which is produced in Maine.
King noted that every time the price of oil or gasoline rises by $1, more than $1.2 billion dollars leaves the state.
“It’s like a tax but we get nothing for it,” he said.
King said that in 1999 spending on fossil fuels accounted for 4 percent of a typical family’s budget. That percentage jumped five times last year and currently is at about 15 percent.
“That’s money people don’t have to spend on other things,” he said. “It’s a severe ripple economic effect where that money just evaporates.”
King contrasted the attitude of fire insurance on a home with the lack of energy insurance. He said people obtain fire insurance even though the potential of ever experiencing a fire is rare. But the price of oil is a known risk, yet no one does anything about it. That is being allowed to happen during a time when the developing world is demanding more and more oil.
“People have no conception of the size of China, where car sales were up 22 percent last year. When people in Asia start driving the way we do, we’ll need three planets of oil. I believe a freight train is heading toward us.”
That is why alternative energy sources, such as wind, solar, geothermal and tidal energy need to be developed, he said. He described the federal government’s recent selection of the University of Maine as the lead institution in ocean energy research as an “enormous step forward.”
King, who is involved in the development of onshore wind energy, said he had no investments in ocean energy. He said ocean energy is a major opportunity for the state, and that Damariscove Island, one of the four research sites selected by the state, could be seen from his home.
“People in the mountains say ‘you don’t’ have to look at them,’” King said of wind turbines. “I get to look at one and I’m delighted.”