Wind on the Water

Posted Nov. 12, 2009, at 5:42 p.m.

After a lot of talk about the potential for generating electricity off Maine’s coast, some exciting first steps are being taken that eventually may lead to establishing offshore wind farms. As with any such new development, the review process will be thorough, as it should be. Those eager to see Maine move boldly toward alternative energy should be patient with the deliberative nature of the process, and those who are inclined to see problems with the new technology should avoid being obstructionists. Too much is at stake to get the preliminary work wrong, or to block the forward progress with-out good reason.

The work began a year ago when the governor created the Ocean Energy Task Force and charged it with investigating how tidal and wind power could be developed in an environmentally responsible way. Test sites for offshore wind projects were identified. Those sites were in state, rather than federal waters — within three miles of the mainland or islands — to simplify the process.

The goal is to establish test turbines in these waters to determine which technology works best and lends itself to a larger application in waters farther offshore.

Several planning areas were identified; two off Washington County, five off the midcoast and one off York County. After meetings with residents, those sites were narrowed to four: off Cutler, near Monhegan Island and Boon Island and Damariscove Island off the southern Maine coast. Each area ranges in size from a square mile to 2 square miles, but a much smaller expanse will be identified, probably less than 20 acres, where the test turbines will be moored.

The technology is still developing; some may use floating platforms, others may use a large sub-surface structure with ballast to prevent the platform from tipping. Different versions will be studied to see which makes sense.

The first turbines will produce just 10 kilowatts; later versions would be larger, producing 100 kilowatts, and later still, 2.3 megawatts. Eventually, when the appropriate technology is found to establish offshore turbine farms, as much as 200 megawatts to 300 megawatts could be produced.

The task force notes that it may take as long as five years to proceed from the early test sites to the larger test facilities, and as long as 10 years in all before the offshore wind farms are in place.

Other New England states, New Jersey and the Great Lakes region also are pursuing wind power from floating platforms. Because the Northeast is closer to energy demand, Maine could jump ahead of the Midwest, which is also pursuing large-scale wind power development.

Mainers must understand that wind power does not mean cheaper electricity, necessarily, but it does mean a stable price and reliable supply. It also means jobs for those building, operating and maintaining the wind farms, and it means less carbon emissions and less money leaving Maine.

The work may seem painfully slow to some, and perhaps recklessly fast to others. Maine will get one good chance to develop offshore wind power correctly.

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