A lot was — is? — riding on the University of Maine’s bid for millions of dollars to create and launch first-of-its-kind floating wind turbine technology off Maine’s coast. The fact that it is an alternate for funding from the U.S. Department of Energy, behind three other offshore wind development projects that will each receive up to $47 million, is more than disappointing.
University officials put on brave faces after the announcement May 7 that they will only receive $3 million for their pilot project to complete design and engineering work. But there’s no doubt the state’s prospects of becoming a central hub for offshore wind development have diminished. Could the state have done more to make Maine’s project more competitive? There are many “what-ifs.”
What if Maine had started its push to develop offshore wind technology earlier? What if more funding and programming had been devoted to research, development and commercialization? What if Gov. Paul LePage hadn’t made life difficult for Norwegian energy giant Statoil, which had a Maine-based project in the Department of Energy grant competition but left after the state approved restarting the bid process for offshore wind development? What if the university and Statoil had instead worked together?
It is possible Maine still would have lost out on the big grant award. But wouldn’t the odds of the state birthing a complex, expensive industry have improved? If anything, the Department of Energy’s decision is a harsh reminder that fostering an emerging industry — indeed, even improving existing industries — is risky, and state leaders must address those risks head on with clear leadership and a strong research and development strategy.
Maine still stands to gain from the university’s laudable efforts. The money it won to finish the design work — though not complete construction — could put the project in a position that’s more attractive to future investors, who could then take the project full-scale. For instance, would the U.S. Department of Defense support the construction of an offshore wind turbine at, say, Portsmouth Naval Shipyard? Or could the project get its funding elsewhere, perhaps from a guaranteed loan program or private equity fund? The alternatives are worth considering.
But that doesn’t mean Maine can neglect to learn from the past. For instance, the state cannot foster a new industry — with economic impact potential rivaling the state’s entire lobster industry — by haphazardly applying regulations or failing to throw its financial and political might behind the endeavor. A commercial-scale wind farm could ultimately create thousands of jobs, especially if the turbines were also manufactured here.
The grant announcement raises age-old issues for the state. Maine needs consistent leadership able to position it for long-term growth. A new industry isn’t built in a year but over decades, as the university knows well. It takes identifying the state’s most promising assets — such as its incredible offshore wind resource — and making a decision to support that development and then sticking with it. Go all-in and stay all-in. Match political rhetoric with financial support. Cultivate and reward creativity in the workforce. Go big or surely lose big.
All this isn’t to say that Maine has lost an offshore wind industry forever. If anything, the state needs to pinpoint how it can improve its efforts at turning research and development into product commercialization and then adjust the way it operates — and not back down. Maine may have lost this rare financial opportunity, but that’s all the more reason to reflect, learn, change and grow.