Heavy equipment rolled across the causeway to Sears Island Tuesday morning for a geotechnical survey done by the state of Maine that could help determine if the island is a suitable place to develop an offshore wind hub.
But the rumble of machinery sounded ominous to environmental groups that want the island to stay undeveloped. Rolf Olsen, vice president of the Friends of Sears Island, said last week that the planned tree cutting and test hole boring seems problematic to him. The state will be clearing 12-foot wide pathways in a forested area in order to accommodate the equipment, he said.
“It is going to scar the island in a way that I’m not aware has been done before,” he said. “I guess it feels like we’re closer to the point where a decision might be made. And we feel kind of powerless to influence that decision.”
The decision at hand has to do with where on the coast the state will build its offshore wind turbine assembly, manufacturing and launching facility. The state’s goal is to use 80 percent renewable energy by 2030 and 100 percent by 2050, and offshore wind has been touted as a way to help reach the goal.
A feasibility study done in 2021 indicated that Sears Island, which is owned by the state, might be a good place to site the wind hub. But the 940-acre island also is a conservation and recreation area, and those who love it are not all in favor of building the port there.
In the same study, the state also looked at the possibility of siting the wind hub at nearby Mack Point, the industrial cargo port that serves this part of Maine. Both Mack Point and Sears Island likely would work as locations for the wind hub, but Sears Island had a lower estimated building cost.
According to preliminary estimates, building an offshore wind port in two phases on Mack Point would take four years and cost around $449 million – more than $150 million costlier than building the port on Sears Island.
Paul Merrill, spokesperson for the Maine Department of Transportation, said Monday that no decision has been made and that the work happening at Sears Island is exploratory.
“We have a lot of information about what is at Mack Point and other locations. We do not have a similar wealth of information about Sears Island,” he said. “We need to know what we need to know. That’s why we’re doing the survey work and test borings now.”
The work being done could show that Sears Island is a good site, or that it isn’t, he said.
“We truly have not made a decision about the location,” Merrill said.
Those who do not want Sears Island to be selected as the site are frustrated. They say they don’t need studies to show them it’s the wrong place for a wind hub, and they believe that a hard-fought stakeholder compromise in 2008, which arose out of a different development proposal, says the same thing.
There have been multiple battles over proposed developments on Sears Island, none of which came to fruition, including a proposal by a company in 2003 to build a liquefied natural gas terminal. The state, which had purchased the island in the 1990s, worked with a stakeholders group to try to work out a compromise.
In 2008, an agreement was hashed out. According to the terms, MDOT would set aside 340 acres of the island as a location for a future container port, which is where the proposed wind hub would be located. The rest of the island would remain undeveloped, with allowed uses including hiking, swimming, hunting and fishing.
But the consensus agreement also states that preference should be given to Mack Point as an alternative to port development on Sears Island, environmentalists point out. This spring, Stephen Miller of the Islesboro Islands Trust said the island and surrounding waters are home to forests, wetlands, eelgrass and essential fish habitat, and any industrial development there would change or destroy some of those things.
“Those losses would not occur if the development is done over on Mack Point,” he said. “That’s already an industrialized space.”
Both Miller and Olsen are part of another stakeholder group convened by the state to discuss the offshore wind hub possibility, but have not been satisfied with how it’s working, Olsen said.
“This is kind of a lip service effort to engage the stakeholders in a way that I don’t find robust or transparent at all,” he said. “We’re getting frustrated by it. Some are getting angry.”
Merrill, though, said that he has attended both of the group’s meetings so far and has heard an open, robust discussion there.
“We know that there are people with very strong opinions about any number of aspects about this discussion,” he said. “We invited those people to the table, because everyone’s opinion is important to us. The goal is to find the best path forward regarding offshore wind in Maine.”
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