Into the Wild: Offshore wind could power Maine, and then some

697
advertisementSmiley face

Maine’s motto is “Dirigo” – I lead – but when’s the last time we truly led the nation?

We’ve got a pretty good streak at the top of annual lobster harvest rankings, I suppose, but I think it’s time for some more innovation. There’s an opportunity waiting for us off the coast.

In late November, Gov. Janet Mills announced Maine would begin testing up to a dozen floating offshore wind turbines in the Gulf of Maine, the first such array in the nation. The goal is to research how electricity-generating turbines floating 20-40 miles offshore might impact wildlife and the fishing industry.

These are answers we need to know because the safe production of offshore wind power would put Maine on the cutting edge of renewable energy production and into a true position of national leadership.

Everyone knows we need to vastly ramp up our production of renewable energy to stave off the worst effects of climate change. Thankfully, the Mills administration knows it too and is trying to make up for lost time: The governor signed legislation last year that aims to have Maine powered by 100 percent renewable energy by 2050.

Offshore wind could help us get there. Mainers use about 2.4 gigawatts of electricity each year, but there is an estimated 156 gigawatts of potential wind energy off our coastline. Plus, because cables can be laid on the ocean floor, transmission of offshore energy eliminates the need for land-clearing transmission corridors, like the controversial New England Clean Energy Connect proposal.

But the question now is that lingering piece: What would the impacts be? While renewable energy is certainly better for the environment, each technology has its footprint.

Land-based turbines clear land and impact birds. Large solar farms take up a lot of space, but can be properly sited on disused spaces like landfills or, best, rooftops. Because there are no floating wind turbines in the U.S. we just don’t know how big their footprint might be, and we need to know before we move forward.

The fishing industry is a foremost concern.

A July report from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which regulates offshore activities including wind power, found that fully built-out wind farms along the East Coast could have major impacts on fishing and shipping. But the report really only studied shallow-water anchored turbines, not the floating turbines planned for Maine, and factored the existing impacts of climate change and overfishing on its final determination. Those issues on their own are already causing major problems for the fishing industry and will worsen without renewable energy replacing fossil fuels.

A 2018 study found that neither the cables anchoring floating wind turbines nor the electrical cables connecting each turbine posed an entanglement risk to whales.

The environmental impacts are even bigger question marks.

The Gulf of Maine provides a habitat for millions of animals, including several endangered marine mammal species and lots of migratory birds. Maine needs to have a handle on the potential impacts to these creatures, and their aquatic food sources, before we move ahead.

What little research there has been into the environmental impacts of floating turbines has been somewhat encouraging. A 2018 BOEM study on the potential impacts of floating turbines on humpback whales found that neither the taut cables anchoring floating turbines nor the electrical cables connecting each turbine posed an entanglement risk to whales, a major concern for the Gulf’s population of critically endangered Northern Right Whales.

Birds are a big unknown as well. The Gulf is important both to seabirds like terns, puffins, and gannets, and also millions of migratory songbirds that commute over water at night during their spring and fall seasons. Whether and how floating turbines might harm these birds, and what design or siting choices may eliminate the impacts, is critical to understand.

Once we can get a handle on floating offshore wind, Maine will be ready to live up to its motto and lead the nation in clean energy production.

Nick Lund of Cumberland is outreach and network manager at Maine Audubon. He has written about nature for the National Audubon Society, Down East, National Parks Magazine, The Washington Post, and others. He can be found online at TheBirdist.com and on Twitter @TheBirdist.