What would LePage advisors have said to Wright Brothers?

Posted June 05, 2011, at 9:59 p.m.

If you believe wind power — and especially offshore wind power as envisioned by the DeepCWind Consortium — will provide a significant portion of Maine’s electric needs, would you be willing to bet $1,000 on that prediction? Similarly, if you believe wind power will someday soon be seen as fool’s gold and that taxpayers will regret the subsidies government has given it, are you willing to lay down $1,000 on that prediction?

Making predictions is easy; backing them up with personal risk, or being judged by their accuracy, is quite a bit more difficult. Emerging technologies have always faced this dilemma. What did pundits say after the Wright brothers flew an aircraft for all of three seconds in 1903? Would they have scoffed at their enthusiasm for aircraft, or predicted that planes would be a primary mode of long-distance passenger transportation within 50 years?

More recent examples are in the commercial product realm. Computers once filled entire floors of office buildings and cost as much as several houses. Skeptics could have made an argument in 1950 that they were not cost-effective. But through research, testing and production — often supported by government funding — computers are now cheap and ubiquitous.

One safe prediction is that a new energy paradigm is imminent. Fossil fuels will become either too expensive, too rare or both. When the new energy paradigm emerges, innovation will follow.

That Gov. Paul LePage’s energy advisers are skeptical about the future of the DeepCWind project, which would site dozens of floating wind turbine towers in the Gulf of Maine, is not a surprise. The current administration seems ideologically driven to oppose any energy plan that could be described as alternative or anything that would be cheered by environmentalists.

A little skepticism is healthy if it manifests itself in questions that lead to benchmarks the project should meet before further funding is granted. But the DeepCWind project already has built-in benchmarks.

The first big threshold the project must clear is the testing of floating turbines off Monhegan Island. If the evidence is overwhelming that floating turbines don’t work, the project should be sent back to the drawing board, or perhaps abandoned. Just as the many early failures of mechanical flight did not doom the technology, large-scale offshore wind power must be explored to its full potential, at least in a small-scale test.

There are technologies that have sucked up substantial public funds and whose legacies remain unclear. Nuclear power, on a cost-benefit basis alone, not to mention public health risk, may not have been a slam-dunk win. The U.S. manned missions to the moon, while spinning off technological and commercial benefits, may not stand up to a clear-eyed cost-benefit analysis.

But the DeepCWind project has high potential for ultimately being judged as successful because of what is known: fossil fuels are rising in cost and have serious environmental detriments; wind has been converted successfully to electricity here in Maine; and technologies now exist to store electricity in home heating devices and car batteries.

The question for skeptics is what would they have said to Wilbur and Orville Wright in 1902.