Governor Janet Mills surprised many in Maine’s fishing communities when she announced on November 20 her administration’s intent to apply to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) for a lease to construct an offshore wind research array in federal waters off southern Maine. The lease, if granted, would be the first in the Gulf of Maine. According to the state’s press release, “the development of offshore wind represents a significant opportunity for Maine’s energy future and economic recovery from COVID-19.”
The exact location of the array is yet to be determined, but would be between 20 and 40 miles offshore and occupy up to 16 square miles of the ocean. According to the Governor’s Energy Office (GEO), the state is working with offshore wind developer, Diamond Energy, to design and build the array which would generate and sell commercial power for at least 20 years. GEO plans to submit its application to BOEM for the research array lease in early 2021.
The announcement came a few weeks after the GEO received a $2.1 million grant from the U.S. Economic Development Agency (EDA) to create a “road map” for offshore wind energy development in the state. The EDA project will be independent of the research array and begin in 2021 to focus on the policies and actions necessary to grow the industry within Maine.
“There is a lot of talk about potential for offshore wind to strengthen Maine’s economy,” said Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, in a public statement. “I certainly hope no one believes that jobs in the renewable energy sector can replace the livelihoods of fishermen in quantity or character. Keep in mind that Maine’s fishing industry has successfully supported thousands of quality jobs, produced healthy food for our nation, and sustained Maine’s coastal communities, large and small, for hundreds of years.”
GEO continues to assure the fishing community that no decisions have been finalized on many aspects of the wind research array, including its final location, though GEO has determined that it will connect to the grid in Portland or Wiscasset. GEO plans to work with commercial fishermen, the Department of Marine Resources (DMR) and other interested parties before making that decision, as well as many others. As its first step, the state held four webinars in December to provide information about the proposed project and to hear the perspectives of fishermen and the public.
Fisheries organizations expressed skepticism and concern about the proposal. Many in the fishing industry have taken issue with the Governor’s unilateral decision and expedited timeline, particularly during the pandemic. “The state never asked the fishing industry if they want it [an offshore wind farm], they’ve only asked where we want it,” said Kristan Porter, MLA’s President.
Ben Martens, executive director of the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association, told state officials during a recent webinar that “The timeline is completely inappropriate for the fishing industry right now. You are essentially establishing a 20-year closure. Please reconsider the timeline so you can reach out to the industry for meaningful input.”
Friendship lobsterman and MLA board member Dustin Delano said, “Pump the brakes, we are in the middle of a pandemic. People have been told not to celebrate the holidays with their families, but the state thinks it’s OK to push forward with an application for offshore wind? I would have no problem getting 300 fishermen in a room on this issue.”
While receiving a lease in federal waters takes time, the lease site must be chosen before the application is submitted to BOEM. Once a site is selected, it cannot be changed. GEO intends to submit its application in early 2021 but does not anticipate that construction would begin for at least five years. That gives the state just a few months to engage with the fishing industry to choose the site to locate its research array which would produce and sell electricity for at least 20 years.
Celina Cunningham, GEO deputy director, says that the development of the proposed project will be collaborative. “A number of decisions have not been made. We want to engage with fishermen on these to make the project better. We would like to hear from fishermen what they think would be the best way to communicate. We are starting with the webinars. The goal is to refine criteria and inform the siting effort by the perspectives of fishermen to make the project stronger,” she said.
Fishing industry members asked lots of questions during the webinars, such as ”Why is the state calling this a research array if it will produce and sell electricity?” When asked about the state’s investment in the research project, Cunningham said, “The state has not gotten to that level,” but “the developer will plan, design and construct the project, then connect it to the grid and sell the energy.”
She acknowledged that there have been sharp views, both for and against, the Governor’s proposal. “We’ve heard strong enthusiasm [for the array] as well as strong concerns from the fishing industry. We want to hear what people think and feel about it,” Cunningham said.
“The GEO is the state lead for this project and is consulting with DMR on data analysis for siting,” explained Meredith Mendelson, DMR deputy commissioner. “DMR will also be assisting with outreach to fishing industry members throughout this process, but particularly around siting and identifying broad research priorities during the application’s development.”
Many questions remain. “The MLA has asked over and over again why the state is in a rush to submit its lease application to BOEM and has not gotten a straight answer,” noted McCarron. She says that the MLA does not share the state’s vision for this project and is concerned about inadequate data on where the lobster fishery takes place and the challenges with working with fishermen during the pandemic. “We still don’t understand why this project is being pushed on a such a tight timeline during the pandemic, and before the state has created a plan for offshore wind.”
In the first months of 2021, GEO plans to hold scoping meetings to share information about the proposal and delve deeper into its details. “We will talk about the siting criteria and additional information that people have [about the area] and how to obtain it. We are looking for ways that work for different people and groups in order to gain a cohesive understanding and make better decisions about the project,” Cunningham said.
“[We are] planning some broad, open meetings and are also hoping to work with smaller groups or individual fishermen who want to discuss various aspects of this process and inform its development. Due to the pandemic, we’re focusing on doing that in remote forums for the time being,” Mendelson said.
The state has not released any details, but GEO Director Dan Burgess told the public that GEO has had many developers contacting the agency about offshore wind development both inshore and offshore. Cunningham did tell a webinar audience that Trident Wind is interested in proposing a large wind project in Maine’s downeast state waters. Director Burgess added that there are not yet any details to discuss because no application has been filed. “We get many developers contacting the state about offshore development inshore and offshore.”
Offshore Wind Energy “road map”
The GEO hired a program manager in late November to oversee the $2.1 million grant designed to create a “road map” for offshore wind industry growth in Maine. An outreach consultant was due to be hired in December to devise a plan for involving multiple stakeholders in the two-year process.
Anthony Ronzio, deputy director of the Governor’s Office on Policy Innovation and the Future (GOPIF), noted the difficulties in truly engaging with individuals and groups during a period when face-to-face meetings are discouraged. “We want to conduct a robust stakeholder process, to ensure that all participants have an opportunity to be heard,” he said.
McCarron says that Maine’s fishing industry deserves to know the state’s goals for offshore wind and how a research array would fit into that.
To create a concise but comprehensive plan to expand the state’s involvement in offshore wind energy development will require input from diverse interest groups, from the state’s colleges and universities to major corporations and fishing organizations. “We want people who have expertise and can give concrete input on the components of the road map itself,” Cunningham said. “Beyond that, it’s an opportunity for information sharing and understanding the concerns of groups and individuals.”
Both Ronzio and Cunningham underscore the back-and-forth nature of the planning process. “It’s definitely not a one-way communication process,” Ronzio said. “It is our intention with this process to have proactive dialogue and hopefully achieve better results.”
A strategy for forming stakeholder groups should be in place in early 2021; a broader outreach plan should be completed by then as well. During a winter when gathering in groups is frowned upon, Cunningham envisions using innovative methods to exchange thoughts and information among a broad sweep of individuals and groups.
“We are open to strong opinions,” Ronzi said. “We are not afraid of that feedback. We have to have these conversations to be able to work together. I hope people come willing to do that as well.”
Many in the fishing industry are hoping for some common sense. “The state needs to do a comprehensive plan. There is no strategy [other than] to send this application in as soon as possible,” Porter said. “The wind isn’t going anywhere,” noted lobsterman Tad Miller. “Take some time before you sacrifice a 200-year old industry. The wind will still be there tomorrow.”