What effect will the multiplying wind power proposals proliferating in New England have on commercial fisheries? The answer appears to be “We don’t really know” to judge by the presentations at the all-day Wind Power Seminar held at the Maine Fishermen’s Forum in early March.
The Gulf of Maine has not yet seen any proposals for wind energy development in federal waters but, said many of the speakers, there will surely be several in the future. Currently only the University of Maine’s Aqua Ventus project is moving forward in Maine’s state waters off Monhegan Island.
Where we are now
Melissa Winne, energy policy analysist in the Governor’s Energy Office started the seminar with an overview of Governor Janet Mills’ policy on renewable energy. Mills called for a 45% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030 and an 80% reduction by 2050. The Governor has set a goal of carbon neutrality in the state by 2045. The state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) has been set at 80% by 2030 and 100% by 2050, a marked increase from the previous 40%.
Where will all that non-carbon-emitting energy come from? Some will come from wind power and some of that wind power will come from offshore. Gov. Mills set up the Maine Offshore Wind Initiative in June 2019 to focus on renewable wind energy. The goal of the task force is to find a way to balance competing uses in state waters and to provide information to the federal Bureau of Offshore Energy Management (BOEM), which oversees offshore lease sales.
As requested by New Hampshire Governor Christopher Sununu, BOEM convened its own regional Gulf of Maine Wind Energy Task Force in December 2019, to facilitate coordination and consultation between BOEM and the states of Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine related to renewable energy planning activities in the Gulf of Maine.
The need to share information among state and federal agencies was a common topic among the forum speakers. Jon Hare from the Northeast Fisheries Science Center in Woods Hole called for collaborative efforts to generate data on the effects offshore wind turbines may have on species distribution, habitat and other factors throughout construction and operation. He noted that by 2030 there may be as many as 1600 fixed foundation wind turbines under construction or operating in offshore waters from North Carolina to Cape Cod. Fifteen major projects are slated for construction between now and 2027, according to BOEM. “What are the effects on fisheries and wildlife and the ecosystems at multiple layers during the stages of construction, operation and de-commissioning?” he asked.
John King from the University of Rhode Island spoke about the current lack of knowledge about the effects wind turbines and underwater electricity cables have on marine species. “There’s been some work on the electromagnetic effects on lobsters and skates,” he said, “but what of the effect of the plumes generated by the turbines in the air and in the sea?” The challenge is answering questions such as these at the same time that the wind development is occurring. “The pace and scale is fast and big,” he said.
How the lease process works
Brian Hooker, a marine biologist at BOEM, pointed out that there are a lot of offshore wind projects in the works. Currently in the United States fifteen offshore leases have been approved by BOEM. Eight site assessment plans have been approved and six construction and operation plans are currently under review, with an additional four to six similar plans to be submitted this year.
The lease process for an offshore wind project is a lengthy one, he noted, comprising specific planning and analysis, leasing, site assessment, and construction and operation stages. Within those stages are five specific times for public comment but the BOEM Gulf of Maine Wind Task Force offers an important avenue for fishermen to get their perspectives heard throughout. “The Task Force is an opportunity to pre-select areas before a developer asks for approval to build a project,” he said.
What is Maine’s role
In Maine two major state laws — Site Review and the Natural Resources Protection Act (NRPA) — govern projects in state waters, explained Nick Livesay from the Bureau of Land Resources in the Department of Environmental Protection. The Site Law requires a permit for projects of greater than 20 acres that have statewide or regional significance. That applies to offshore wind projects of greater than 3 MW.
The standards that must be met to receive a permit include no adverse effect to existing uses which, in the case of offshore wind, includes commercial fisheries. Under NRPA, a permit is required for activities that impact natural resources regardless of the project’s size. To receive a permit, the project must not unreasonably interfere with or harm recreational or navigational uses, among other standards. DEP does permit wind power demonstration projects in state waters if the project has no more than two turbines and whose purpose is to test wind power technology. “This streamlines permitting,” Livesay said.
Another route for review by the state is through Maine’s Coastal Zone Management Plan. Any project proposed in federal waters must show consistency with the adjacent states’ Coastal Zone Management Plan. In Maine, this “consistency review” is conducted within the Department of Marine Resources.
Maine will be the first state in the nation to feature a floating wind turbine when the Maine Aqua Ventus project is completed. Jake Ward, Vice president for Innovation and Economic Development at the University of Maine, highlighted changes to the project, which had been on hold for several years. In place of the original proposal to build two 3-MW wind turbines, the project plan has evolved to construct one, larger turbine capable of producing 10 MW of electrical power.
The turbine will be made of pre-cast segmented concrete, similar to that used in the Penobscot Narrows Bridge, and will be constructed in Maine. The floating structure will be attached to the seafloor with plow anchors and attached by up to 3000 feet of chain. The base diameter of the 10 MW turbine will be 311 feet and column diameter will be 37 feet. The turbine will be assembled in Searsport and towed to its site off Monhegan.
In late 2019, the state’s Public Utilities Commission approved a 20-year power purchase agreement with Maine Aqua Ventus, the turbine’s parent company. “We are finalizing the new design and then will re-start the permitting process,” Ward explained. “The goal is to develop technology that will convert wind to energy and that survives in the Gulf of Maine.”
Advocating for fishermen
In 2019 the Responsible Offshore Development Alliance (RODA), a group of fishing industry associations and companies, signed a ten-year Memorandum of Understanding with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and BOEM to collaborate on the science and process of offshore wind development along the Atlantic Outer Continental Shelf.
“The wind developers were going on a divide-and-conquer mode and fishermen realized they needed to speak with one voice. After a year and a half we have about 150 members now and are expanding to the West coast,” said Annie Hawkins, RODA executive director.
The Alliance has advocated for fishermen on issues such as the layout of turbines, the size of transit lanes, and other subjects. “Our aim is to not constantly be in a reactive state but to find ways to coexist in a meaningful way,” she said. Recently RODA helped create another group, the Responsible Offshore Science Alliance (ROSA). ROSA’s goal is to advance regional research and monitoring of fisheries and offshore wind interactions in federal waters. The organization recently hired its first executive director.