Environmental, Natural Resources, & Energy Law Blog
Maine’s Tunnel Vision Approach To Floating Windmills in the Gulf ~ putting greed ahead of environmental concerns - Patricia Howe
Maine’s Tunnel Vision Approach To Floating Windmills in the Gulf ~ putting greed ahead of environmental concerns
As a continuation of a blog post I wrote in the fall of 2022 about wind power and the lobster industry in the state of Maine, I have been monitoring the progress of a proposed offshore windmill farm in the Gulf of Maine. In March of 2021, when President Biden announced his administration’s plan to develop off shore wind farms along the eastern US coastline, including in the Gulf of Maine, Maine’s Governor Mills requested a ten year moratorium. This was out of concern that off shore wind facilities could impact Maine’s lobster and fishing industries. Fishing, and more specifically, lobster fishing is a crucial part of Maine’s economy and livelihood. The moratorium sought to protect the commercial lobster harvesting industry. Close to 75 percent of Maine’s commercial lobster fishing occurs in state waters that could be affected by a windmill farm in the Gulf that needs to connect to the mainland through state waters to deliver electricity to Maine businesses and residents.
Mills’ moratorium also sought to allow for more time for research and public involvement. The state is currently developing its own research on floating windmills that could reduce adverse effects on ocean ecosystems. Governor Mills’ proposed research project, in collaboration with the University of Maine, plans to launch a model of the first floating windmill off Monhegan Island in January 2024. The project is slated to continue by adding “no more than 12 floating turbines” in federal waters. Not included in the moratorium is the single floating turbine off Monhegan Island in state waters, which contradicts Mills’ goal for the moratorium to do research to protect state waters and the lobster fishing area. Even though Governor Mills was attempting to protect the lobster industry through her ten year moratorium, the lobster industry is not supportive or trusting of the plan. “To them, turbines anywhere in the gulf take away somebody’s productive fishing area.”
Maine continues to miss the mark on wind power by confusing the environmental benefits with financial gains and disregarding the lobster and tourism industries. An example of the greed surrounding this issue is a bill proposed in the 131st Maine legislative session by Sen. Mark Lawrence, D-York, to increase the number of floating wind turbines in the Gulf of Maine from 12 to eventually hundreds. This “bold course for the future” is premature and does not take into account the lack of research by the University of Maine on the construction of floating turbines, their effectiveness to produce enough energy, and the effects on marine life and the fishing industry in Maine. The bill touts financial gains for the state, and global recognition but does not take into account the midcoast community and the residents of Maine. The bill has the potential to economically burden the residents of Maine since “offshore wind farms can be expensive and difficult to build and maintain.” Tourism and property values can be negatively affected as well.
OFFSHORE WIND AND ISSUES IN MAINE
Offshore wind farms are becoming a global industry as nations around the world are looking for ways to decrease theircarbon footprint and create renewable energy and rely less on fossil fuels. However, there is an underlying economic turbidity looming over the cost of construction and maintenance of floating wind mills. The purpose of these floating wind mills is to try to halt the climate crisis and reliance on fossil fuels that is creating havoc at increasing speeds across the globe, while also protecting ocean species and their ecosystems. However, it is becoming a fast financial bidding war for companies seeking to construct offshore wind farms and provide power to the residents and businesses that will have to rely on them for electricity. The focus of protecting our environment has been overrun by corporate greed.
Wind energy has been a hot topic since Congress passed the Inflation Reduction Act in 2022 which outlines thefederal government’s plans to create 30 gigawatts of offshore wind energy by 2030. The Gulf of Maine is prime real estate for wind turbines, but also home to many marine species, and a national economic resource in the fishing and lobster industries. Maine is also a prime location for research for wind power because it is believed that the Gulf has “some of the highest and most consistent wind speeds in the world.” However, the wind speeds are not consistent. “The Gulf of Maine has some of the strongest and most consistent winds in the world, and those winds peak in the winter months.” It does not take into account climate change, erratic temperature fluctuations, and effects on wind speed that should be part of the research process. “Climate predictions don’t generally factor in surface winds, despite some indications they may be changing.”
A TEN YEAR MORATORIUM SHOULD BENEFIT ALL
It was perhaps a sound idea for the Governor of Maine to request a ten year moratorium on federal wind power turbines descending on Maine’s coast to allow for research and public comment. It is perhaps an innovative idea to tap into the University of Maine to conduct research on floating wind turbines to assess the environmental impact, and possibly reduce the threat to marine species, and the lobster and fishing industries. It is not a sound idea, however, to greatly increase the scope of a project as significant as floating wind mills that lacks sufficient research solely for financial gain and status.
The designated research array in Maine is only 20 -30 miles out to sea. A study conducted by Sullivan, Kirchler, Cothren, and Winters of Argonne National Laboratory, concluded that “even small offshore wind facilities of a few dozen turbines can be seen easily at distances exceeding 15 miles and that moderately sized facilities of 100 turbines are seen easily at distances of 22 miles or even farther.” In addition, government supporters of the bill have not clearly defined the financial aspect of paying for the project and delivering the power to residential homes in Maine. The bill is focused more on greed than sustainability for the people of Maine. The state should hit pause on passing this bill and allow the Governor’s moratorium to play out so that there is more research and information in place.
As the bill looms in the 131st Maine legislative session to boost development of offshore wind power in the Gulf of Maine, perhaps to “hundreds of floating turbines”, is Maine getting greedy? Is this bill that will accelerate offshore wind development solely intended to make Maine the leader in offshore wind energy and floating turbine technology? Is this bill a blind money making scheme that will inevitably prey on the heart and soul of Maine - its residents. What will be accomplished in the next ten years now that Governor Mills has asked for this time to study floating wind turbines, and is the bill currently before the legislature to accelerate the number of floating wind turbines premature and counterproductive? I believe so.
News Center Maine begins its January 24, 2023 post, “Hundreds of floating turbines could be spinning in the Gulf of Maine within the next decade.” Perhaps in an attempt to demonstrate positivity and innovation, Senator Mark Lawrence, D-York, was quoted as stating: ‘”I think the more ambitious we set the goal, the more we’re going to encourage investment from the private sector,”’ Lawrence also admits that there will be a burden to the taxpayers in the state to fund the expansion project. Senate Minority Leader Trey Stewart, R-Aroostook, is questioning the transparency of the legislation and how it will impact Maine resident’s electric bills. His response to Sen. Lawrence’s press conference on the issue was, ‘”I’d want to know what they mean when they say, ‘interest of ratepayers,…What’s the kilowatt hour rate? How is this going to impact your bill?”’
Supporters of this bill say “passing the proposed law would make Maine a leader in floating offshore wind power and attract billions of dollars in private investment.” The bill also has the support of reputable conservation organizations such as the Natural Resources Council of Maine, and Maine Audubon. However, the proposed offshore wind power project with floating turbines is still in development and research. It is still unclear where Governor Mills stands on the bill as her administration has been strong in stating their goals of balancing the floating wind mill project with the fishing industry and Maine’s coastal and offshore environments. Many wind mill projects are underway along the east coast that are using “technology pioneered over decades in Europe.” Let’s focus on the word “decades”. These projects are in the outer continental shelf, and the turbines are secured by “massive” steel tubes that have been in place long enough to learn about the successes and failures, and effects on marine ecosystems. Floating turbines are held in place by cables and anchors which is a new system design that in its infancy does not indicate the long term effects on our oceans and marine life.
The concept of floating wind turbines is such a new concept that the University of Maine has been seeking a patent for its design. A single unit was launched almost 15 years ago off Norway, and interestingly a Norway energy company (Statoil) proposed a pilot wind farm off the Maine coast, but did not succeed during former Maine Governor Paul LePage’s administration just prior to Governor Mills. Other floating wind mill projects were launched recently in 2020, and 2021 off the coasts of Portugal and Scotland.
We must appreciate Maine’s attemptsto address the fossil fuel concerns and to seek alternative energy sources to release our reliance on fossil fuels and decrease GHG emissions. We can applaud the state’s progressive initiative to research floating wind mills and the impact they will have on marine ecosystems, and the lobster and fishing industries. We must also focus on the word “decades” and the newly launched floating wind mill farms that are only at best three years in, not enough time to make a sound conclusion on the effects versus established turbines that are secured to the coastal floor.
Maine’s proposed bill, the “Offshore Wind Bill” does not take into account the effects on marine ecosystems and the fishing industry. Nor does it take into account the economic impact on Maine residents; their tax and energy bills. Maine’s current administration has put Maine voices, the lobster industry and coastal communities as the leading concerns in developing offshore wind farms, and considered these concerns in the idea of offshore floating wind turbine research. Mills’ ten year moratorium was requested to allow for the research to provide data that addresses all of Maine’s concerns. A bill that proposes a research floating wind farm increase from 12 to “hundreds” promoting economic gains and recognition for the state of Maine is a greedy move that lacks soundness and environmental responsibility. It also lacks respect for the residents of Maine, and the hardworking lobster and fishing industries that have sustained the Maine economy for hundreds of years.
Mahatma Gandhi was ahead of his time in saying, “Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s needs, but not every man’s greed.”  He may not have even been responding to climate change, it is fitting however, to consider his wisdom. The “Offshore Wind Bill” is as much ahead of its time, as Gandhi was, but wisdom should prevail over greed. The state of Maine should focus on the original intent for Governor Mills’ ten year moratorium and allow more time for the research to assure the residents of Maine and its natural and marine environments will benefit from floating wind turbine farms in federal waters.