AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. John Baldacci joined state lawmakers and advocates for renewable energy on Tuesday to celebrate the passage of a suite of bills aimed at helping lessen Maine’s dependence on foreign oil and other fossil fuels.
After the event, University of Maine researcher Habib Dagher said his research center is well on its way to developing offshore wind power technology that he predicts could support thousands of jobs in the state by 2020.
“We have had interest all over the country and all over the world in this,” Dagher said of the floating wind turbine technology being developed at UMaine.
Dagher was among those present at the ceremonial bill signing, where Baldacci praised the Legislature’s work on several energy bills. Included among them were bills creating energy corridors, which aim to locate pipelines and transmission lines along major state highways and “smart grid” policy, which uses technology to manage and curb energy use.
Other bills guarantee minimum benefits to towns that host wind turbines and establish a permitting process for offshore wind farms.
The governor also praised a bill that will allow homeowners to pay for energy-efficiency improvements by rolling the upfront costs of the projects into their property tax payments over 10 to 20 years.
“There’s a lot here,” Baldacci said. “These are five critically important pieces of legislation to build a foundation for Maine’s energy-independent future.”
Several speakers noted that Tuesday’s event at the State House coincided with a storm of energy-related developments nationwide.
Two weeks ago, federal officials approved the massive Cape Wind offshore wind energy project near Cape Cod. Meanwhile, the environmental disaster unfolding in the Gulf Coast has focused the public’s attention on the safety of offshore oil drilling platforms in U.S. waters.
Later today Sens. John Kerry and Joseph Lieberman are expected to unveil an energy and climate change bill in the U.S. Senate.
Several people at the State House event said federal climate legislation is critical to helping Maine achieve its goals of becoming a major producer of renewable energy.
“If it doesn’t happen this year, we are worried it may be years,” said Pete Didisheim with the Natural Resources Council of Maine. “It’s really important for the state of Maine to see this happen this year.”
Baldacci and other speakers praised the bipartisan work that went into the five bills highlighted on Tuesday.
“In a world where people are complaining about partisan gridlock, I think we have demonstrated that, at least on energy, there is an issue that we can come together on,” said Rep. Stacey Allen Fitts, a Pittsfield Republican who serves on the Maine Legislature’s Utilities and Energy Committee.
Dagher, director of UMaine’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center, is leading a consortium working to build wind turbine technology capable of deployment in the stormy, deep waters of the Gulf of Maine.
The offshore energy bill passed by the Legislature, LD 1810, sets a goal of generating 5,000 megawatts, or 5 gigawatts, of electricity from coastal energy projects by the year 2030. It also establishes a permitting system for wind and tidal energy projects in state waters.
Dagher said the first test turbine — a 100-foot-tall floating prototype — will be deployed off Monhegan Island by 2012. A full-size, 300-foot-tall prototype will follow two years later.
“We are going to build it next year using Maine labor and Maine people,” Dagher said of the first prototype.
Between 2014 and 2016, Dagher’s team hopes to build the first small-scale floating wind farm encompassing five turbines — generating up to 25 megawatts of electricity — somewhere between 10 and 50 miles off the Maine coast.
Such a project could employ up to 320 people onsite and at the turbine and platform components manufacturing facilities along the Maine coast, Dagher said.
The next phase calls for expanding to a commercial-scale wind farm with up to 200 turbines generating up to 1,000 megawatts — the equivalent of a nuclear power plant — and employing 4,500 people.
The final phase would require construction of three to seven additional commercial wind farms in the Gulf of Maine between 2020 and 2030. Dagher estimates projects of that scale would bring in $20 billion in investment to Maine and employ between 7,000 and 15,000 people.
Dagher predicted that the deepwater wind farms envisioned by himself and others will be less controversial than the Cape Wind project because they will be located far enough offshore to be invisible from the beaches and rocky coastline.