Monhegan residents are preparing for a heated showdown in Augusta next week over a contentious bill that would effectively cancel a proposed offshore wind test project to be sited approximately 2.5 miles to the south of the island. The bill LD 1262, sponsored by Sen. Dana Dow (R-Lincoln Cty.), would prohibit the placement of wind turbines within 10 nautical miles of the Monhegan Lobster Conservation Area. But while supporters say the bill would protect Monhegan’s scenic views, opponents say it will lay waste to several years of planning, cause the project to lose out on $40 million in federal funding and prevent the state from becoming an innovator in renewable energy technology.
The Legislature’s Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee will hear the bill on Tuesday, May 2, at 3 p.m. in the Cross Building, Room 211.
In a press release, Sen. Dow said that the ban is necessary to protect Monhegan’s tourism economy and culture and the population of migratory birds that land on the island along the North Atlantic Flyway. Dow’s press release says, “Many of America’s foremost artists regularly visit the island, along with a large number of seasonal residents and visitors, to enjoy a simpler way of life that is only possible on this remote island miles off the shore of Maine.”
“Mainers would never allow a massive wind turbine experiment to be placed within a short distance from the top of Mount Katahdin or near the shores of Acadia National Park, because these are special places and so is Monhegan Island,” said Dow. “Having said this, I firmly believe that the final decision rests with the permanent residents of the island who need to determine the merits of this bill. I believe the need is to finally settle this issue so that outside interests will know whether they can build this project or move on to a different area.”
The proposed dual windmills have split the island down the middle, with 32 of Monhegan’s registered voters reportedly signing on with the anti-turbine group Protect Monhegan, which requested the bill. However, several artists who contacted The Free Press support the plan, including eminent realist painter Jamie Wyeth, who has a home on the island.
“Of all the homeowners on Monhegan I will be the most affected, both audibly and visually,” wrote Wyeth. “The proposed site for the windmills is directly offshore from my house on the southwest tip of the island and I can’t wait to do a painting of the windmills. I am obviously in support of the project. For many reasons I see them not as a detriment but a plus.”
“The Floating Laboratory”
Since 2009, Maine Aqua Ventus (MAV), a University of Maine-led consortium of private businesses – including the utility Emera Inc., construction company Cianbro and DCNS Energies – has been working on a plan to test its floating wind technology near Monhegan. MAV proposes to deploy two 6-megawatt turbines on a floating concrete, semi-submersible hull 2.5 miles south of Monhegan Island, and 12 miles from the mainland. The developers say the turbines would have the capacity to power 6,500 homes and would provide 340 megawatts a year of free electricity to the island, where residents currently pay 70 cents per kilowatt hour for diesel-generated power – about five times the price paid by mainland customers. The company hopes to begin operation of the New England Aqua Ventus 1 turbines in 2019, and, if successful, it would likely be the first full-scale floating wind project in the Americas.
For several years, European countries have developed offshore wind projects, but they are generally installed in shallower waters on fixed-base platforms that are secured by driving piles deep into the seabed. Because 89 percent of the Gulf of Maine’s estimated 156 gigawatts of wind power resources exists in deep waters, the University of Maine’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center has developed the floating platform as a more feasible way to tap into the Gulf’s offshore wind resources.
According to MAV, the turbine platforms would be constructed in Hampden, then towed to the Mack Point Intermodal Cargo Terminal in Searsport to be assembled before they are towed to the Monhegan test site. Rather than steel, the design requires concrete and composites, which the developers say are cheaper and can be manufactured in Maine. Under the terms of the MAV proposal, 50 percent of all building contracts would go to Maine-based businesses. The two turbines would operate for up to 20 years as the researchers collect data.
MAV hopes the project will demonstrate the potential to develop a large-scale 500-MW wind farm 20 miles offshore. Supporters of the Monhegan project say that UMaine’s floating wind turbine technology has the potential to demonstrate an affordable way to mass-produce turbine platforms and set the standard for offshore wind production around the world. If a 500-megawatt wind farm in the Gulf of Maine ever came to fruition, the developers estimate it would generate about 2 terawatt hours of energy, which is about 16 to 17 percent of the state’s annual usage, if it ran at just 45-percent capacity. University of Maine economist Todd Gabe has predicted that the Monhegan project will produce $200 million in total economic output and create 1,500 jobs.
Supporters of the project also argue that harnessing the power of Maine offshore wind could greatly reduce energy costs and replace dirtier sources of energy with a cheap, clean renewable source of power as technological advancements drive costs down. The cost of building offshore wind farms in Europe has dropped 46 percent in the last five years. At an average cost of $126 for each megawatt of capacity, offshore wind is now below the cost of building new nuclear power plants and fast approaching the price of new coal plants, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance.
“Dead in the Water” If the Bill Passes
However, Protect Monhegan, which formed last year to mobilize opposition to the project, argues that islanders were originally open to the idea, but were caught off guard by the size of the turbines after the developers increased the scale back in 2013. Protect Monhegan spokesman Travis Dow, a former island assessor and no relation to Sen. Dow, says that when the islanders first learned of the proposal in 2009, the University of Maine representatives said that the turbines would be much smaller than the current proposal and would only be there for two periods of five months.
“If they had come here in 2009 and said they were going to put two six-megawatt turbines, there’s not one person out here who would have been like, ‘Oh cool.’ We would have been up in arms,” said Dow. “It took a while for Protect Monhegan to get going, but here we are.”
Under the current proposal the turbine hub height would be 328 feet above the waterline and the blade height would be up to 576 feet above the water line.
University spokesman Jake Ward insisted that the siting process and the project has been made clear to the residents from the beginning.
“We believe that the test site law, the test site selection and all the work we’ve done so far has been really in the spirit of what was originally established – a best practice, pragmatic way to get to evaluating technology for tapping into Maine’s largest renewable energy source,” said Ward. “And to wind back the clock and say the last eight years of your work doesn’t count, ‘go do it someplace else’ – it’s just not good business practice, it’s not good environmental practice and it’s not the best way to go forward. If this bill passes, we’re essentially dead in the water.”
The process began in 2008 when the Maine Legislature formed the Ocean Energy Task Force, which resulted in legislation in 2009 to create test sites for offshore wind and tidal power. Ward said the Monhegan site was chosen for the New England Aqua Ventus 1 because it is the farthest spot offshore in state waters and it has a limited number of fishermen because of the lobster conservation zone.
“It’s got the deepest water and the most sustained winds,” said Ward. “It’s a really good environment to do this limited testing. The added value is that Monhegan as a self-generating energy island could potentially benefit from the economic benefits.”
In 2009, the University held scoping meetings with Monhegan residents and fishermen to solicit feedback and the site was selected in December of that year. Ward said while the team originally had proposed to build a much smaller demonstration project off Monhegan, it settled on deploying its 1:8 scale VolturnUS offshore turbine prototype near Castine in 2013 because the winds and size of the waves there were more suitable for the small-scale model. In May 2013, VolturnUS became the first grid-connected offshore floating wind turbine prototype deployed in the US. It was around that time when the team learned that the US Department of Energy was putting out an RFP for projects to do full-scale offshore wind testing. Maine Aqua Ventus scaled up the project and submitted a proposal.
“That was four years ago,” said Ward. “The project has been fully described since 2013.”
In the spring of 2013 Gov. Paul LePage and Sen. Mike Thibodeau (R-Waldo County) forced the Legislature to reopen the application process for offshore wind proposals to qualify for the lucrative DOE grants in order to allow the University to compete with the Norwegian energy giant Statoil’s plan for a $120 million offshore wind project near Boothbay Harbor. In response, Statoil abandoned its plans to develop offshore wind projects in Maine, citing the uncertain regulatory environment, and decided to move ahead to establish an offshore wind project in Scotland. So far, MAV has received $10 million in DOE grants that are tied to the Monhegan test site and the project is in line to receive $40 million more in federal funding to make it a reality.
“If we can’t do it in this test site, and we are forced to move someplace else, all that information would have to be started again from scratch,” said Ward. “And frankly, there’s no time and no money to do that and still be part of the Department of Energy Advanced Technology Demonstration Project, which would contribute up to $40 million to building the demonstration project.”
Nevertheless, opponents argue that the project would cost the island more in lost tourism revenue as they believe tourists wouldn’t want to visit an island where they can see such large wind turbines from the land.
“It’s just a research project. That’s all it is. They can move it,” said Travis Dow of Protect Monhegan. “Who cares if it takes a few more years to get going? In the grand scheme of things, a few years is nothing. They’re the ones who changed the size of the project. They put us in this position. If we knew this straight up from the beginning, the project never would have gotten this far.”
Opponents of the project also express skepticism about some of the environmental impact studies the university has done at the site. In 2013, the University of Maine and New Jersey Audubon conducted a study using radar and trained bird observers and concluded that 90 percent of the birds fly well above the height of the turbine hub. The testing covered up to 6,000 feet up, well above the 576-foot height of the turbine blades, Ward noted.
But in an April 7 letter to the Department of Energy, the Virginia-based American Bird Conservancy expressed concern that there is still not enough information to determine the turbine’s effect on migratory birds. Michael Hutchins, director of the organization’s Bird-Smart Wind Energy Program, wrote that he is particularly worried about whether the turbines will harm federally protected Piping Plover, Roseate Tern and Bicknell’s Thrush and the endangered Peregrine Falcon.
“As with onshore wind turbines, siting is critical,” wrote Hutchins. “Unfortunately, the technologies for both assessing impact pre-construction and monitoring impact post-construction are not as well developed for offshore wind energy as they are for onshore wind energy. ABC is therefore concerned that the actual impact on our nation’s birds will be difficult, if not impossible to assess over open water where carcasses will be lost.”
Meanwhile, if Maine Aqua Ventus isn’t shot down by LD 1262, it will still need state and federal environmental permits. The U.S. Department of Energy is now in the process of preparing a draft environmental assessment of the proposed project, having completed the public input process last month. Currently, MAV is preparing a survey of the proposed cable route to Port Clyde, which it plans to complete later this spring.
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