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SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — A deep water wind farm off Maine’s coast moved closer to reality Thursday as state and federal officials got a more detailed look at a Norwegian energy company’s proposal.
Statoil North America Inc., a division of the Norwegian company Statoil ASA, submitted an application in October for a commercial lease to the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management for an area of ocean that’s about 22 square miles for full assessment of environmental impacts, sea bed conditions and wind speeds. The lease area is about 12 nautical miles offshore of the Boothbay area.
The eventual size of the “Hywind Maine” project would be narrowed down to an area of between 2.32 and 3.86 square miles.
Ned Farquhar, deputy assistant secretary at the Department of the Interior, talked Thursday about the Obama administration’s goals to reduce dependence on foreign energy sources.
“Opportunities like Atlantic wind, where there is significant potential, don’t come along every generation,” said Farquhar. “This is a huge opportunity to develop clean energy sources responsibly.”
The official interest by a major industry player in offshore wind immediately accelerates the potential development of the sector in Maine. The state, largely through the efforts of private industry and the University of Maine, has been developing prototypes, studying environmental and commercial issues off the coast and setting up the process for approving such projects.
“The proposal galvanizes the commercial deep-water development in Maine and the United States,” said Habib Dagher, the UMaine professor who has been at the forefront of offshore wind research in the state. “It’s currently an international race to deep water, and Maine is in the middle of that race.”
Farquhar confirmed Dagher’s assessment: “Deep water has not been implemented very much around the world. It’s got tremendous potential and Maine is at the vanguard.”
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, has been involved with the offshore wind effort in Maine for years, sending members of her staff with former Gov. John Baldacci to Norway in 2009. She noted in a statement Thursday that Interior Secretary Ken Salazar toured the new deep-water offshore wind laboratory at UMaine during the summer at her invitation to learn more about the work being done in the state.
“I am very pleased to see the department take this next step in convening the BOEM Maine Renewable Energy Task Force today, and I thank Secretary Salazar for his commitment to work with other federal agencies in pursuing the most efficient path forward to establish deep-water, offshore wind as a viable energy source,” Collins said.
The federal agency has reviewed and approved the legal aspects of the application. It still has to review the technical and financial merits of the program.
The project would be in water from 460 to 520 feet deep. Because of the depth, the wind turbines would be floating, tethered to anchors on the sea floor — not embedded in the ocean bed.
Aditi Mirani, the bureau’s project manager for Maine, said the initial project Statoil has proposed is a pilot plan. It would include four 3-megawatt turbines, she said. The company is proposing a similar deep-sea pilot program off the coast of Scotland.
“What they’re proposing here is a test facility, a small-scale project. They just want to demonstrate the commercial potential of that floating turbine technology,” said Marini.
Ken Fletcher, head of Gov. Paul LePage’s Office of Energy Independence, noted the development of offshore wind in Maine was still in the very early stages.
The administration is keeping an open mind regarding the different energy opportunities that exist, he said, and ocean energy is “one of those great potentials.”
“The real test will be how well we can implement and achieve that potential with minimal impact,” said Fletcher.
Marini said Statoil plans to submit construction plans and operations plans by the end of next year, with the bureau making a decision on the lease request and approval of those plans by 2014. The plan is to start installation of the turbines in summer 2016, she said.
Statoil has responded to a request for proposals from the Maine Public Utilities Commission for companies that wanted to produce offshore energy, and the company also has applied to the New England electric grid to connect at the Boothbay substation.
Sen. Christopher Rector, R-Thomaston, head of the Legislature’s Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee, said he saw great potential for Maine companies like Bath Iron Works, Cianbro Corp., Reed & Reed Construction and others.
“We’ve been focused on jobs for as long as I’ve been in the Legislature. What’s exciting about this is the opportunity for jobs in areas where we have some levels of native skill,” Rector said. “Saltwater runs in our veins.”
Rector said he was thinking of not only jobs making the turbine towers and parts, but also the installation and continuing maintenance of the wind farm.
Paul Williamson, director of the Maine Wind Energy Initiative, said his group has been working with Statoil to determine what parts of the supply chain exist here in Maine and where there are gaps.
The company’s interest in Maine waters takes his group’s efforts to a different level, he noted.
“This is beyond tire-kicking,” he said.
Statoil developed the first deep-water floating turbine off the coast of Norway in 2009. Former Gov. John Baldacci, University of Maine researchers and others visited the site that year, signing an agreement to cooperate in exploring the technology’s potential.
The company has operations in 34 countries and is valued at $85 billion. Company officials visited Maine after the gubernatorial mission to Norway and said at the time they were exploring numerous deep-water sites around the globe for their first commercial wind farm.
About 100 state and federal officials, as well as members of the public and interested parties, gathered Thursday for the meeting in South Portland.
Expected to last for much of the day, the session included numerous comments from agencies including the Coast Guard, Department of Defense and National Marine Fisheries Service on how they plan to study the proposal and what problems may exist.
Several officials gave initial assessments while describing the additional studies and tests they would undertake concerning the feasibility of the Maine Hywind project.
“Statoil picked a fairly decent location as far as traffic goes,” said George Detweiller, a marine transportation specialist with the Coast Guard.
Coast Guard data show relatively light traffic in that area, he said, though they don’t necessarily track smaller fishing vessels or recreation craft.
Representatives from the DOD said they would need more studies to determine possible impact on radar, and noted the area was in the general vicinity of pathways used by BIW and the Navy to test new destroyers, as well as submarine routes for vessels being serviced by Portsmouth Naval Shipyard.
A fisheries officials said they would study impacts on habitat, marine mammals, fish stocks and others.
Linda Welch, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist who works with the Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge, raised a number of concerns regarding offshore turbines and their potential impact on birds and bats.
Both the roseate tern and the piping plover are endangered species and migrate from Nova Scotia to Maine using unknown routes. They could be affected by a wind farm, she noted.
Maine has about 4,600 coastal islands and 382 are nationally significant seabird nesting islands, she said.
For example, 96 percent of the Arctic terns in the lower 48 states breed on four islands in the Gulf of Maine. Ninety percent of Atlantic puffins breed on three of Maine’s islands, she said.
Bald eagles congregate on the coast in the winter, feasting on seabirds, traveling to islands up to 20 miles off the coast, Welch said.
She suggested that in-depth studies would be needed to address potential impacts.
Rep. Bruce MacDonald, D-Boothbay, a member of the task force, said he was a proponent of wind energy, but added that a lot more study and information was needed.
“We have to look at a complete picture — can you do it without hurting the fishermen?” he said.
After the presentations, the task force took comments and questions from members of the audience. Some, including Dagher and Beth Nagusky of Environment Northeast, urged an expedited process for approving the pilot project lease.
A number of others with questions represented Maine’s fishing community, including Chris Weiner, a senior fishery analyst with the American Bluefin Tuna Association.
Weiner said the area eyed by Statoil is a “hot spot” for tuna, as well as for groundfish, lobsters and whale watchers.
“There are much better places to put something like this,” said Weiner. “You’re never going to please everybody, but don’t pick a hot spot.”