December 18, 2017
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What happens when a small Maine town and an energy project with global impacts collide

By Lauren Abbate, BDN Staff
Updated:
Ashley L. Conti | BDN
Ashley L. Conti | BDN
University of Maine's floating wind turbine, VolturnUS in Castine in a 2014 file photo.

ST. GEORGE, Maine ― A project taking shape about 12 miles offshore from the village of Port Clyde is creating a rift in the tight-knit fishing communities on the St. George peninsula.

On one side is Maine Aqua Ventus, a pilot project to test floating turbines as sources of renewable energy. On the other side are fishing families concerned that the turbines and cables used to transport the energy ashore could disrupt fishing habitats on which they rely.

“The situation has become polarized,” St. George select board chairman Richard Bates said. “It is something that is disturbing because I think the town has always considered itself a fairly cohesive community. This is putting a lot of stress on that.”

[Maine coastal villagers say cables from offshore wind project will wreck their way of life]

The pilot project has been in the works since 2009. But conflict in St. George escalated during the past year, after Maine Aqua Ventus announced it would seek to bring the transmission cable from the two 6-megawatt wind turbines into Port Clyde.

Both sides are accusing the other of spreading false information about the scope and impact of the project, leaving townspeople scrambling for answers to form a balanced judgment on the issue.

Earlier this month the select board voted to form an advisory committee to “find the facts” and quantify the impact the proposed project and cable pathway would have on St. George, Bates said.

But opponents to the project have little faith in this advisory group and fear it might be too late to prevent the cable from coming into Port Clyde.

“Our largest concern is what is going to happen after this,” said Randy Cushman, 55, a lifelong fisherman and resident of Port Clyde. “I’m worried about the next generation of fishermen, that’s what I’m worried about. I could really see them being eliminated by this. I really can.”

What is Maine Aqua Ventus?

Maine Aqua Ventus is a collaboration between Maine Prime Technologies LLC, a spin-off company representing the University of Maine; Cianbro Corp.; and Naval Energies, a French-owned offshore energy company.

Aqua Ventus I, a two-turbine pilot project, aims to test the feasibility of the University of Maine’s semi-submersible floating concrete platforms for offshore wind turbines. The technology, VolturnUS, is designed with concrete hulls that keep the turbine stable, preventing it from succumbing to large waves.

In 2013, Maine Aqua Ventus deployed a one-eighth-scale model of its turbine in waters near Castine. It became the first offshore wind turbine in the Americas to send electricity to the power grid.

The following year, the Maine Public Utilities Commission approved a 20-year power purchase terms sheet for the pilot project. The plan calls for two 576-foot-tall turbines to be located about two and half miles south of Monhegan Island.

Aqua Ventus I is projected to cost between $180 million and $200 million, according to Jake Ward, vice president for innovation and economic development at the University of Maine in Orono. It is one of two projects slated to receive $40 million in federal funding through the Department of Energy’s Offshore Wind Advanced Technologies Demonstration program.

[UMaine offshore wind project in line for full federal funding]

Maine Aqua Ventus was born out of ocean energy objectives that were formed under former Gov. John Baldacci, including the passage of legislation that would facilitate the testing and demonstration of renewable ocean energy technology. It was through this process that the site near Monhegan was identified. The law limits the usage of the test site to a maximum of two wind turbines and one submerged utility line.

In a 2009 report, the Maine Ocean Energy Task Force set renewable ocean energy goals for the state, including the installation of 5 gigawatts of offshore wind energy by 2030. According to the report, Maine has 156 gigawatts of offshore wind resources, 89 percent of which is located in its deep waters.

Maine Aqua Ventus is currently the only offshore wind energy project in Maine. While they are not currently pursing any commercial development in the Gulf of Maine outside of the pilot project, the long-term vision of Maine Aqua Ventus has been to develop of 500-megawatt wind farm at a to-be-determined location in federal waters in the Gulf of Maine.

Initially, UMaine was proposing a much smaller project for the Monhegan test site, but when they were selected to participate in the Department of Energy program, the two-turbine 12-megawatt proposal emerged.

Earlier this month, residents of Monhegan voted to approve the terms of a community benefit agreement that would provide the island community with $4.77 million to $6.27 million in total net economic value. An advisory committee established by Monhegan Plantation recommended choosing the fund option as opposed to a proposed cable option that would have helped to bring a fiber-optic cable to the island.

‘It’s just wrong for St. George’

Monhegan reached the agreement last month, but only after islanders opposed to the project had their own fight against it ― including a failed legislative effort that would have pushed the project farther off the coast of the island.

Now, residents in St. George are launching their fight to prevent the project’s transmission cable from coming to shore at yet to be determined location in Port Clyde.

Last month, a group of residents opposed to the project filed what they originally called a petition, but was later classified as a sentiment, with the town. Through the sentiment, the group, Preserve Our Remarkable Town (PORT), urged the town to beef up its shoreland zoning ordinances in an attempt to make it difficult for Maine Aqua Ventus to bring the cable line to shore in St. George.

“It’s just wrong for St. George. The project is a major electrical development project that is going to have significant infrastructure on the shore,” Scott Sullivan, a PORT co-founder, said. “To do that in a town like St. George, where we have wonderful and beautiful villages, we have an artist community. We’ve got 250 years of history here in the town. It just absolutely makes no sense.”

Maine Aqua Ventus initially sought to bring the cable into Bristol, but around the end of 2016, focus shifted to Port Clyde. As in Port Clyde, residents and fishermen in Bristol expressed concern over how the cable would affect fisheries as well as the aesthetics of the small coastal community. In response to public concern, Bristol developed a permitting process for utility installations in shoreland zones ― a process that the St. George planning board is currently looking to develop.

Ward said that while there was public concern in Bristol, the cable landing site was changed to Port Clyde due to logistics. If the cable were to go from Monhegan to Bristol, it would cross ridges on the ocean floor, leaving it more susceptible to failing. In going from Monhegan to Port Clyde, the cable would align with the ocean ridges.

The proposed cable route for Aqua Ventus I is a pre-existing cable right of way. While Maine Aqua Ventus originally saw the existence of this cable right of way as a boon to bringing the cable into Port Clyde, there’s a problem.

The cable currently in the right of way hasn’t been used in more than 30 years, meaning that the Department of Marine Resources hasn’t been enforcing fishing restrictions in that area. While fixed gear, including lobster traps, are allowed within the cableway, fisheries that use mobile gear ― such as scalloping and shrimping ― are not permitted to drag their gear through a cable area.

“This will impact them on a day to day basis,” said Cushman, who has made his livelihood through shrimping and groundfishing, though he presently fishes outside the area that would be impacted by the cable and test site.

The cable will not be much different than the cables that already exist up and down the Maine coast bringing electricity to the state’s islands, including ones that currently come into Port Clyde. But Cushman said local fishermen have been accustomed to working around these existing cables. By throwing a new restricted area into the mix fishermen would be faced with lost fishing bottom and a reorganizational nightmare, he said.

The test site and cable route cross the fishing waters of Monhegan, Cushing, Friendship and Port Clyde ― meaning fishermen in all of these towns will lose some fishing ground if they use mobile gear. Monhegan’s small fleet of lobstermen will also lose some fishing ground within the test site.

The Zone D Lobster Council voted about two years ago to formally oppose the project, when at the time the cable route was still slated for Bristol. In October, the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association also voted to oppose the project.

“The working waterfront is very important to Maine’s coastal communities especially out of the St. George area and this project is viewed as a threat to that livelihood and lifestyle to many of the fishermen that we work with,” Ben Martens, executive director of the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association, said.

Maine Aqua Ventus is open to minimizing the cable’s impact on fisheries, Ward said. In January, a geophysical survey of the route will be conducted, Ward said it will help Maine Aqua Ventus figure out how the cable and fishermen can co-exist ― whether that be through burying portions of the cable or looking into a compatible use option through state and federal agencies that have jurisdiction.

A way of life upended

Aside from the concerns about the cable, some residents aren’t so hot about having the added infrastructure in the small village. With tourism being an economic driver for St. George, opponents argue adding electric infrastructure would be counterintuitive.

“As someone who was a tourist before I was a full-time resident, I was attracted to the quiet, natural beauty,” Wendy Carr, a PORT co-founder, said. “If you’re going to bring all this infrastructure in, it’s going to change the quality of life in these villages.”

The location of where the cable will come ashore in Port Clyde has not yet been determined, according to Ward. However, when the cable does come ashore, it will be connected to the Central Maine Power transmission system. Depending on the route of the power lines, Ward said existing utility poles will likely have to be replaced with taller poles, so the additional line can be accommodated.

Communication between Maine Aqua Ventus and the St. George community is another complaint lodged by opponents of the project. Carr described dealing with Maine Aqua Ventus as “fighting against a ghost.”

“If the communication had been great, I don’t think we’d be where we are,” Bates said.

However, Maine Aqua Ventus maintains that outreach with local stakeholders has been a priority ― providing the Bangor Daily News with a detailed list of more than 175 meetings, calls and webinars that have been held from the inception of the project in 2009 through April 2017.

Joshua Plourde, a communications manager for UMaine’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center, said he invites anyone to call him with questions or concerns regarding the project.

Fear of change?

Not all residents in St. George oppose the project. James Balano, a retired merchant marine who lives in Spruce Head, has been vocal in his support of what Maine Aqua Ventus is proposing.

“It’s the right thing to do in terms of the future for everybody, in terms of getting rid of our dependence on carbon fuels,” Balano said. “Any place where there is sufficient wind is the right place to do it.”

Through this project, Maine is throwing its hat into the global competition to develop the “most economic and efficient technology” for floating offshore wind turbines, Ward said. By developing floating bases, rather than fixed-bottom, offshore wind turbines can be placed in areas optimized for wind.

If this project were to succeed, Ward said not only would it bring Maine-developed technology into the global spotlight, but it would provide jobs through a new industry.

“Right now, the Maine technology is one of the leading technologies under evaluation in the world,” Ward said. “If we can show and demonstrate this technology in Maine, we have a chance to secure the opportunity to manufacture these hulls in Maine and put them wherever the right locations are.”

But it’s this prospect of growth that scares Cushman.

While he says he and other fishermen are not opposed to renewable energy ― adding that he has solar panels on his home ― the idea of the Gulf of Maine being home to a wind farm by 2030 leaves fishermen worried about whether they will still have a place to work in the sea off Maine.

“This cable and test site are going to hurt [fishermen] financially. I’ll tell you right now, what comes after that is going to kill us,” Cushman said.

Per their agreement with Monhegan, Maine Aqua Ventus cannot use or sell the VolturnUS technology for another project within 15 miles of the island. Once the two turbines are in place, Maine Aqua Ventus said it will also work with local fishermen to develop safe fishing practices around the structures.

Any future offshore wind development ― including the possible 500-megawatt Maine Aqua Ventus project ― will likely take place in federal waters.

But before that can happen, Maine’s biggest investment in offshore wind power must navigate the straits of small-town government in the communities of St. George.

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