It’s hard to believe there’s still a side of the University of Maine offshore wind story that is lacking public attention, given the Freedom of Access Act requests, the back and forth with the Maine Public Utilities Commission and all the in-depth reporting. But the understandable focus on Norwegian energy giant Statoil and its reaction to Maine politicians has overshadowed a key player in this tale of towers: the proposed project’s neighbors, the fishermen and residents of Monhegan Island.
This tiny community of roughly 50 year-round residents is currently being courted by the University of Maine to act as a willing host for the university’s new wind power project. The project — two six-megawatt turbines — would loom a mere two miles off Monhegan’s shores. Discussions on running a power cable to the island — a measure that would provide sorely needed relief for residents paying one of the highest electric rates in the nation — are being coupled with conversations about visual, sound, environmental and human use effects. But why does this matter to the rest of the coast, the state and the future of offshore wind in Maine?
First, Monhegan is part of a vibrant coastal economy. The cultural heritage of islands, and the economic activity that comes with it, is a vital part of what makes Maine, Maine. How we treat the coast is essential to the identity and character of Maine, particularly in these times of economic uncertainty and confounding changes to our ocean ecosystems. With so much already in flux, we need to be mindful of how political decisions leave their mark on this part of the state.
Second, in a state filled with hundreds of small, remote communities, any time local livelihoods stand to be affected by powerful external interests, we all need to pause. With the governor, the U.S. Department of Energy, powerful environmental groups, legislators and the university itself all angling to influence the outcome, we need to make sure that we’re not setting a precedent for overlooking local interests in large infrastructure projects. Monhegan residents — like those in any other small, rural community — deserve a seat at the table.
Third, Monhegan is an iconic part of Maine that is on the brink of survival. There is probably no single square mile more important to American art. But Monhegan is also known for leading the state in lobster conservation efforts, in affordable housing programs, for networking remote schools with cutting-edge technology, and for land conservation initiatives. Despite these strengths, the high cost of living is challenging the sustainability of the island’s year-round community. A neighboring project benefiting from massive amounts of federal and state support should seek to contribute to local efforts to overcome these challenges.
What about Monhegan’s role in the development of an offshore wind industry in Maine? Offshore wind has enormous potential for the state of Maine, and the Aqua Ventus proposal represents an important stepping stone. We’ve heard about how harnessing the Gulf of Maine’s robust winds can provide us with a cleaner alternative to our dependency on the fossil fuels — a dependence that is rapidly affecting the oceans upon which so many of us depend. We’ve heard time and time again that Maine, with its deep waters and research abilities, can be a leader in this new industry, creating needed jobs for Maine people in the process. It’s important that we don’t squander such an opportunity.
In recent weeks, many have focused on the damage to the industry caused by the state government’s reopening of the Public Utilities Commission process and Statoil’s subsequent decision to abandon its project. For better or worse, that project is gone.
But the university’s project is moving ahead. While its engagement with Monhegan residents was limited at first, it has recently shown marked improvement. The university can demonstrate the right way to work with rural Maine communities, including islands, by engaging locally and directly with residents, sharing benefits (including providing power and fiber optic access), and addressing the effects of large scale development on fishing and the environment as openly and honestly as possible.
At the Island Institute, we’re reminded on a daily basis that islands are microcosms, mirroring back to us the situations we inevitably find ourselves facing on the mainland. The rule holds fast with Monhegan and offshore wind. If we want this industry to work for Maine, we need it to first show how it can work for Monhegan.
Suzanne MacDonald of Rockland runs the Island Institute’s community energy program.