AUGUSTA, Maine — Government officials and researchers who seek to build ocean-based wind and wave turbines in the Gulf of Maine unveiled three sites Tuesday where prototypes will be constructed.
Tuesday’s announcement puts Maine one step closer to becoming the first state in the nation to create offshore wind test and demonstration sites, which according to University of Maine professor Habib Dagher will position the state at the forefront of a widespread effort to tap renewable energy sources.
“Our vision is to put Maine in front of the country and the world in the development of offshore wind power,” said Dagher, who as director of the university’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center plans to conduct research with three wind turbines at one of the locations announced Tuesday.
The three sites, selected by a consortium of government and private agencies, include one off Boon Island, near the southern Maine town of York; one off Damariscove Island near the town of Boothbay; and the third near Monhegan Island, located some 25 miles from Maine’s midcoast region. All three sites, which measure between 1 and 2 square miles, are in Maine’s territorial waters, which means the state — as opposed to the federal government — will retain regulatory authority.
Two of the sites will be open for private industry testing while the Monhegan site is reserved for Dagher’s team, which includes about 30 businesses and organizations. That team recently received an $8 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to create the Maine Offshore Wind Energy Research Center, which will be located at the Monhegan Island site. In addition to wind research, all three sites might be used to test new technology that generates electricity from waves.
“We have a competitive advantage,” said Gov. John Baldacci Tuesday during a press conference. “We are perfectly situated close to the Gulf of Maine, one of the world’s best wind resources.”
Baldacci has made the development of a renewable energy industry one of his administration’s hallmark issues.
That effort reached a milestone in June when the Legislature passed a law that directed the Department of Conservation and State Planning Office to identify between one and five test sites in Maine’s coastal waters. A site off the Washington County town of Cutler was one of the early contenders, but that location was not iden-tified Tuesday.
Chris Gardner, chairman of the Washington County board of commissioners, said a dispute over what location would least affect fishermen led to the Cutler site being left out. However, the fight is not over, according to Gardner and Sen. Kevin Raye, R-Perry.
“This is not a complete surprise to us that we were not selected,” said Gardner. “There is an amendment process. The state can choose to add other sites down the road.”
“We do hope we will be able to be added after a comment period,” said Raye. “We really took great care to engage fishermen to try to find a site that would have the least potential impact.”
Sen. Seth Goodall, D-Richmond, said the selection of sites near his area is significant.
“Having a test site in our area will lead to great opportunities,” he said.
Under current law, the University of Maine site will be active for up to seven years with three turbines. The private industry sites will be allowed up to two turbine units for five years.
Baldacci said there is strong interest in the private sector for using the test sites and that numerous companies have already contacted his office. Interested companies must undergo an extensive permitting process to be selected, said Baldacci.
As for the University of Maine site, Dagher said he intends to erect three towers of different designs. The major question that needs to be answered, he said, is which design can best endure the natural forces of the ocean for the lowest cost.
Asked after the press conference whether he thinks offshore wind farms are financially feasible without the benefit of government subsidies, Dagher said they are, particularly with the cost of crude oil certain to rise over time.
“There’s going to be a point when the lines will cross,” said Dagher. “I believe it is very feasible.”
Providing strength to the initiative is strong support from local, state and national governments plus enthusiastic involvement by Maine businesses, said Dagher, who identified Bath Iron Works and Cianbro Corp. — two of Maine’s largest businesses — as being among dozens of Maine companies that have shown interest.
Dagher said his project will benefit from more than 30 public and private partners, not to mention some 300 University of Maine graduate and undergraduate students.
After a speech to students a month ago in which he invited them to apply to work on the project, more than 100 students submitted resumes within an hour.
“The students can’t wait to be involved,” said Dagher. “I have calls coming in so fast from companies in Maine and all over the country. People really see the importance of this.”
For Baldacci, renewable energy is part of the solution to some of Maine’s most troubling issues.
“It’s about economic development. It’s about environmental protection. It’s about national security,” he said. “This is important. It’s about all of our futures.”