Offshore wind forum welcomes skeptical audience

Posted Dec. 14, 2010, at 8:27 p.m.

BELFAST, Maine — Fishermen, whale watch captains, environmentalists and others came together Tuesday at the Hutchinson Center for a conference on offshore wind energy that was designed to help them get the information necessary to join the dialogue about wind development off the Maine coast.

Some people are skeptical and wary of proposed wind power projects in the ocean waters off the coast, attendee Eva Murray of Matinicus said.

“That level of concern from people like fishermen — you have to acknowledge it’s a problem, and then deal with it,” she said.

About 160 people came to the conference, according to organizer Heather Deese, marine programs director at the Island Institute. Maine Sea Grant, the Maine Coastal Program, the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences and the Quebec-Labrador Foundation also helped to make the event happen.

“One of our highest priorities is getting useful information out to people,” Deese said.

The conference was timely, some attendees said, because offshore wind power development is just beginning to become a reality in Maine. Researchers are preparing to develop a test site with scaled-down turbines that will be located off the southern shore of Monhegan Island. Also, state and federal officials have suggested that large deep-water wind farms in the Gulf of Maine could generate a total of 5 gigawatts of electricity, bring $20 billion in investment and create several thousand new jobs here by 2030.

Rep. Stacey Fitts, R-Pittsfield, said that the biggest goal of the conference was to reach stakeholders — such as fishermen and recreational ocean users — who have not traditionally been engaged in the learning process about offshore wind. He also said that he believes Gov.-elect Paul LePage will continue to consider wind energy as an important issue in Maine.

“I haven’t gotten the sense that the governor is an anti-wind guy,” he said of LePage. “My sense is that he’s looking at this in a practical way. Wind is not the end-all, be-all. It’s not going to solve our problems, but it’s definitely part of our energy mix.”

In fact, Fitts said he thinks it’s possible that the LePage administration will take a close look at how Gov. John Baldacci has worked to remove obstacles to wind energy development. It could be a model for removing roadblocks to business success in Maine, he said.

“The new governor is not going to get in the way of development,” Fitts said.

Someone else who is intrigued by the possibilities of offshore wind energy development — but also wary of possible negative results — is Glen Libby, president of the Midcoast Fishermen’s Association.

“Change happens a lot faster than we think — and it’s painful to live during the transition,” he said during a break at the conference. “We’ve got to keep an eye on [wind development.] If somebody smells a dollar, this thing could take off like wildfire. The fishing industry could get run over, if we’re not careful.”

Deese said that one intention of the event was to have people look at the bigger picture and move beyond the test site process. Toward that end, conference organizers included representatives from Massachusetts and Rhode Island who were asked to share their experiences, positive and negative, during a session titled “Lessons Learned from Siting Renewable Energy Projects.”

Speakers included a man from the Rhode Island Party and Charter Boat Association, who spoke about the Rhode Island Special Management Plan, and a man who helped develop the Massachusetts Ocean Management Plan.

Rick Bellavance of Rhode Island said that the “major stakeholder” as offshore wind is being developed in his area is the fishing community.

“It’s my opinion that it’s very important to develop policies and standards that address potential conflict,” he said. “The fishermen need to stay involved in this process. I recommend that you take the time to make sure you have representatives at every single meeting.”

John Weber, from the Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management, told Mainers that they shouldn’t expect that developing a plan for offshore wind will be easy.

“These are tough issues. We should not kid ourselves about that,” he said.

For Eva Murray, what seems hardest so far about discussing offshore wind energy development is finding a moderate perspective.

“It’s easy to be a raging environmentalist or a rut-person,” she said, describing those opposed to change.

But listening to the perspectives offered during the conference made her feel hopeful.

“It sounds like there’s some rational, reasonable people in this process, and that’s good to know,” she said.

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