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University wind project awaits funds despite opposition

Monhegan is about as isolated as a Maine community can get. The island is 11 miles offshore, lives mostly on lobster fishing and summer tourism and has a declining year-round population – currently said to be around 45 people.

But as out of the way as it is, Monhegan is at the center of a debate over plans to build two, large, floating wind turbines. That plan has been developed over the past five years by the University of Maine, which has been working to design a floating platform that can hold the 300-foot towers and wind turbines.

There is currently only one floating commercial wind turbine operating in the world, built by StatOil off the coast of Norway. Researchers believe there is tremendous wind energy potential in the Gulf of Maine, and that capturing it could provide a prime source of renewable electricity and create Maine jobs building and maintaining the equipment.

UMaine has formed a partnership with Cianbro construction and the Emera energy company to form Maine Aqua Ventus, the business that proposes to actually build the platforms and turbines. The location is about two-and-a-half miles off Monhegan, in a section of ocean designated by the Maine Legislature specifically as a University test site for ocean energy.

The wind project had been talked about on Monhegan for several years, but the debate intensified over the past year after new details of the design were brought to islanders. Members of the island’s Energy Task Force say the huge size of the wind turbines was a surprise.

Some early discussions had focused on one-third scale test models that would be installed temporarily. But Task Force co-chair Tara Hire says that when they learned the platform, towers and blades would extend more than 500 feet above the water, “it took a while to get our heads around that”.

However, Maine Aqua Ventus (MAV) suffered a setback earlier this month when it was not selected for a $47 million dollar grant from the U.S. Department of Energy. Instead, a West Coast design for a floating platform and two East Coast, fixed turbine projects were awarded grants.

MAV was designated an alternate, and allocated $3 million to complete the remaining design work. University Vice President Jake Ward says MAV will move ahead, and hopes funding will come in the future. Construction is projected to cost a total of about $150 million, much of which Ward says would come from private investors.

But some people on Monhegan and others on the mainland hope the project does not go forward. Tara Hire says opinion on the island is “about 50/50”. Lobsterman and B&B owner John Murdoch says he and others are for wind power, but wishes it wasn’t so close to the island. Murdoch says he believes the turbines –which would be visible from Monhegan – could interrupt the ocean views and keep tourists away. He says the project area also falls within Monhegan’s special lobster fishing zone and would take away as much as 10% of their fishing area.

On the mainland in Bristol, other fishermen worry about the underwater cable that would take electricity from the turbines and bring it to shore. Fishermen say the cable would interfere with shrimping, lobstering and other commercial fishing. They also say the turbines would pose a threat to migratory birds, and also suggest they could harm tourism, the biggest industry along the coast.

An opposition group called Friends of Muscongus Bay has formed to fight the wind project. One of the leaders of that group says their prime focus will be to pressure the Legislature to abandon the Monhegan test site, and permanently eliminate the possibility of building the test turbines there.

Jake Ward of the University of Maine says they are still working to resolve issues such as the underwater cable, and will continue to do so. Ward also says he believe their design will eventually be built, but admits he doesn’t know how soon that will happen.