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Monhegan residents voice concerns over proposed offshore wind project

Monhegan Island residents are growing wary of a proposed offshore wind farm, which would dramatically lower electricity costs but also threatens to alter views and have other impacts on one of the state’s most picturesque locations.

Residents and visitors of the 4.5-square-mile island have sent written comments to the Public Utilities Commission, which is considering the merits of the Maine Aqua Ventus offshore wind project, a commercial venture with the University of Maine that could one day lead to a 50-turbine offshore wind farm in the Gulf of Maine that could generate power for 6,000 average homes. The two-turbine test site is located about 2.5-miles off the southern shore of Monhegan, an artist and bird-watching haven where approximately 45 residents, including eight lobstermen, live year round.

The project has received support from the business community and elected officials, who have been touting its economic benefits and the potential of Maine becoming a global leader in offshore wind development. However, the scale of the project and its momentum have some residents on Monhegan concerned. In the fall, residents formed a task force to act as a liaison between islanders and Maine Aqua Ventus, a project proposed by Maine Prime Technologies, a for-profit spinoff that represents the university and two general partners, Maine-based Cianbro Corp. and Emera Inc. of Nova Scotia.

Kathie Lannicelli, a 21-year resident of the island, is on the 10-member board. She said the panel was formed to make sure residents’ voice is heard. She said about half of the residents are cautiously optimistic about the proposal, while the other half is outright opposed to it.

Even those that are optimistic have concerns, she said.

“There’s a kind of panic that this is something that’s unstoppable,” she said.

Backers hope the project will secure a $46 million federal grant that could make Maine an offshore wind leader. Supporters have also said that islanders will receive electricity at a cost of about 30 cents per kilowatt hour, less than half the current rate of 70 cents – the highest in the country – for 20 years.

But Winnie Murdock, a 36-year resident, said nobody cares about the cheaper electricity. She said Friday that opposition to the project has nothing to do with residents being against wind energy.

“I don’t think anybody is opposed to wind energy,” she said. “We all want to do our part to stop global warming and get off fossil fuels. We just think that if wind turbines have to be 10 miles off the coast (of Maine), why don’t they have to be 10 miles off the coast of Monhegan?”

Several residents wrote that they were worried about the visual and noise impacts, as well as effects on birds and marine life.

Murdock is also worried about her family’s livelihood. Murdock’s husband and son are among the eight lobstermen fishing in the Monhegan Conservation Area, a 30-square mile zone that includes the island and neighboring Manana Island. The Aqua Ventus project would be located in the conservation area, which the Legislature reserved for Monhegan licensed lobstermen in 1997. The proposed test site is approximately 2.5 square miles.

Not all Monhegan lobstermen fish the portion designated for the wind project, Murdock said. However, her family worries that those who do will crowd into the remaining fishing grounds because the project will make it impossible to fish near it.

Some residents tempered their support with caution.

“That isn’t to say we don’t have concerns,” wrote Matt Weber, a 19-year resident and lobsterman, “however we feel that wind power is a positive solution to the issues around fossil fuels.”

Weber also posed questions to the Public Utilities Commission, including noise levels and potential compensation to lobstermen, who he wrote, “will certainly lose a significant chunk of our bottom.”

Jake Ward, vice president for Innovation and Economic Development at the University of Maine, said Friday that developers of the project were taking the concerns seriously and they were engaged in outreach efforts with residents. However, he said of the complaints were based on wrong information or a misunderstanding of the project. For example, Ward said, some people believe that the test site could one day become the site of a grid-scale project. He said that’s unlikely and that a large commercial project would likely be located in federal waters, further from the island.

Additionally, Ward said that there was ongoing visual and sound modeling underway. The modeling is being conducted by Pacific Northwest National Laboratory as the project competes for a $46 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy. The competitive grant would be awarded through the Offshore Wind Advanced Technology Demonstration Program.

“We want a project that is compatible with Monhegan while also trying to address whether these turbines can become part of grid-scale wind energy in the Gulf of Maine,” he said. “It really is something that hopefully at least the year-round folks see an opportunity and a value from.”

Lannicelli said Friday that most residents were worried that they were powerless to stop the project. She said a recent outreach efforts by Maine Aqua Ventus had only heightened the panic among some people on Monhegan. She said islanders wanted to support wind power, but they were worried about how it would affect an island that has become a spiritual haven for artists, tourists, bird watchers and the residents who live there.

“You wonder if you want to live in a world that’s more balanced for your children and your grandchildren if you’re going to have to give up something that’s precious to you,” she said.