a prototype wind turbine and a boat float on the waters in the Gulf of Maine
The launch of the University of Maine's prototype wind turbine model VolturnUS was the result of more than a decade of work. (Photo courtesy University of Maine)
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Commercial interest in offshore wind power in the Gulf of Maine is surging — and Portland could be leading the charge.

That interest in could materialize at the Gulf of Maine by 2024, when the first official leasing period for offshore wind will begin, predicts Stephanie Watson, the Maine Offshore Wind Program manager from the Governor’s Energy Office (GEO). 

“[Offshore wind] is rapidly ramping up,” Watson told Portland city councilors at a Sustainability Committee meeting on Nov. 30. “This is driven primarily by different national climate goals and those nations’ needs for energy security.”

The GEO applied in 2021 for a permit to build 12 wind turbines, each of them as high as 850 feet tall with blades as long as a football field. The turbines would cover a 15.2-square-mile area just under 45 miles from Portland. Just one rotation of those blades can create enough clean energy to power a household for almost two days, according to Watson.

Under Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, the state and many of its municipalities are striving to meet ambitious electrification and carbon reduction goals set in 2019 to commit Maine to carbon neutrality by 2045. In July 2021, the Governor’s Energy Office (GEO) unveiled Maine’s Offshore Wind Roadmap, an economic initiative for the state’s offshore wind industry. The agency convened subcommittees from specific Maine industries like ports and the supply chain, energy, fisheries and the environment and involved key individuals from those camps, hoping to build an economic development plan for the offshore wind industry while gauging their recommendations.

 

The University of Maine’s turbine design is constructed with concrete, ensuring that it can be built locally. (Photo courtesy University of Maine)

The Roadmap is scheduled to be finalized by the end of this year, and the Roadmap Advisory Committee is scheduled to meet next on Dec. 13.

While Portland wouldn’t be a primary construction site for offshore wind, Waterfront Coordinator Bill Needelman said at the Nov. 30 meeting that the city will have a role to play in supporting the industry in Maine.

“As a port community and fishing community, I think we have a responsibility to both explore offshore wind as a port opportunity, but also to continue to promote the protection of fishing interests simultaneously,” Needelman said. “We have to be smart to both walk and chew gum at the same time.”

The notion of implementing offshore wind doesn’t come without question marks, either. The fact that the technology is so new means that it’s hard to predict what sort of impacts the turbines could have on the surrounding environment or on Maine’s fisheries.

According to a report Needelman submitted to the Sustainability Committee, offshore wind development will create new job opportunities in the Portland harbor. 

Needelman also wrote that “fishing will not have localized negative impacts” from potential infrastructure used to support offshore wind in the Portland Harbor. The Waterfront Coordinator also noted that “offshore wind has proven to be very unpopular with many fishing interests statewide,” citing concerns of fish displacement, disturbance from gear transport or potential ecological harm from the construction or operation of the facilities 

“However, the scale and nature of opportunities here in Portland Harbor will not generate direct impacts to fishing,” Needelman wrote in the report. But, the Portland fishing fleet “may see reduced fishing opportunity if offshore wind expands sufficiently to meet both Maine and federal carbon reduction goals.”

This concern emphasizes the importance of Portland’s involvement in the process, according to the report, as the city could help advocate for official statewide fishery protections as the offshore wind industry grows. The extent of fishing impacts is expected to be highly scrutinized during any offshore wind projects.

MAINE’S NEW EXPORT

Though work must be done to balance preservation of the fisheries and the environment and implementing offshore wind turbines, experts say that offshore wind is necessary to provide the amount of energy Maine needs to meet its long-term goals.

Jack Shapiro, Climate and Energy Director of Maine’s Natural Resources Council, said that offshore wind is a crucial avenue to explore for renewable energy, much like solar. While solar provides the most energy during the day and in the summer, offshore wind is at its peak when winds are strongest — at night and in the winter. Thanks to the Gulf’s consistent and high wind speeds, Maine would get more “bang for our buck,” for every turbine in the water, Shapiro added.

Boasting some of the highest and most consistent wind speeds in the world, the Gulf will be used in the development of offshore wind power, regardless of whether Maine plays a part in it or not, according to Shapiro, adding that other states adjacent to the Gulf, like Massachusetts, will surely be interested in the prospect of offshore wind.

“If we want to have a seat at the table, and we want to make sure that offshore wind is developed in a way that minimizes any kind of negative impacts, whether that’s to the fishing industry, to the ecosystem or wildlife, then we have to be engaged and involved,” Shapiro said.

With access to the region’s natural resources and the prospect of new technology, Shapiro figures that Maine has a leg up on the competition, and could become a global leader in the industry. Because of the Gulf’s depths, turbines would be designed to float rather than be solidly anchored to the seafloor. Though that concept is new now, those like Shapiro in the industry predict that floating turbines will make up the majority of the world’s offshore wind sources 50 years from now.

a floating offshore wind turbine
Floating offshore wind turbines like this one (left) are expected to be the future of offshore wind energy globally, according to Jack Shapiro of the Maine Natural Resources Council. (Photo courtesy University of Maine)

WIND, LOCALLY GROWN

And the development of that tech is happening in Maine too. The University of Maine’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center (ASCC) has been designing their own floating turbine for over a decade. Their goal of a 2024 launch of a turbine is still on schedule, according to ASCC founding Executive Director Dr. Habib Dagher.

Called VolturnUS, their turbine is made primarily with concrete, which means the turbines can be built in Maine too. They’ve implemented synthetic mooring lines, which take up less space than typical steel, decreasing the turbines’ impact on fishing space.

While it’s a fast-growing industry, the infrastructure needs for such huge projects will still take time before it takes off in Maine.

A port facility to house and develop the massive turbines would be similar to the scale of Bath Iron Works, or the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in New Hampshire, though Shapiro added that those ship-building and construction needs are in Maine’s wheelhouse: “[it’s] expertise, heritage and history that Maine has.”

It would require way more space than Portland has to offer — but conversations about everything the city can bring to the table, like supportive port operations, ease of access to the highway, jetport and more — will no doubt continue in this developing pursuit of more renewable energy for Maine.

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