Blades on wind turbines nearly 500 feet tall rotate in the breeze in unorganized territory in eastern Hancock County, Maine on Monday, May 21, 2018. The turbines are near blueberry fields where a developer has proposed another renewable energy project in the form of a 100-megawatt solar farm. Credit: Bill Trotter

Maine currently uses more fossil-fuel produced energy than any of the other New England States. The solution to reducing, and even eliminating, that dependency could lay in state’s potential to produce much of the energy it needs through wind generated power.

“We have a lot of wind energy on and off shore in Maine,” said Jeff Thaler, associate university counsel for environmental, energy, and sustainability projects for the University of Maine System and member of the UMaine team that has developed cutting edge offshore wind power technology. “We went through a process nine or so years ago where the state mapped out wind potential in the state [and] established expedited zoning regulations in certain areas that showed great promise.”

According to the American Wind Energy Association, Maine has enough reliable wind blowing over land to produce 69,797 megawatts of power annually. With developing technology in offshore wind generated power, there is the potential for an additional 94,498 megawatts of power. Combined, it’s more than enough to power the state.

But the state isn’t there yet.

As of 2018, Maine was harvesting 923 megawatts of wind-generated power, meeting 21 percent of the state’s overall power needs of 4,615 megawatts. “There is plenty of wind in Maine,” Thaler said. “Does Maine have the potential to meet its own energy needs through wind power? The short answer is yes.”

The mandate is here

Wind power has been on the radar of state officials for more than a decade. In 2009, the Maine Legislature passed the Maine Wind Energy Act mandating the state have 3,000 megawatts of wind power on line by this year and 8,000 megawatts of wind power on line by 2030. The idea was to encourage the development of wind energy and associated infrastructure in Maine.

Dan Burgess, director of the Maine Governor’s Energy Office, acknowledged Maine’s new renewable portfolio standard that requires 80 percent renewable energy by 2030, including wind generated power, is an ambitious one, but one he believes is obtainable.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, since the passage of the Maine Wind Energy Act, 625 megawatts of wind produced energy have gone online in Maine produced by 14 separate wind turbine farms with a total of 386 turbines built between 2009 and 2017. Prior to 2009, a handful of turbines around the state were producing 298 megawatts of wind power. There are no wind projects currently under construction in Maine.

“We think there’s a real opportunity for Maine’s energy future, for its environment and for the economy to produce homegrown clean power,” Burgess said, “This is especially true in those areas of expedited zoning regulations”

In those zoning areas, which cover much of the state, proposed wind-generated power projects would be eligible for streamlined permitting and zoning considerations. All of the wind power generating sites developed since 2009 were constructed in areas of expedited zoning.

Counties not granted expedited zoning were the western half of Aroostook County, much of Pisacataquis County, the western edge of Somerset County and portions of Washington and Hancock Counties.

Credit: Bill Trotter

The potential

Still, Thaler is excited about the future of wind power in Maine, especially the power generated by winds in the Gulf of Maine. He’s been a key player at the University of Maine’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center, which in 2013 unveiled and successfully tested its first offshore floating wind-energy producing turbine.

These turbines, he said, have an incredible potential to harvest offshore winds not just in Maine, but around the world. Because they don’t need to be anchored directly to the seafloor they can be placed in deep water areas far enough offshore to not impact scenic views, Thaler said.

It’s also important, according to Burgess, to think beyond Maine since the state is part of the transmission grid shared among the New England states.

“When you think about Maine’s energy mix, you have to think about it in a regional context,” Burgess said. “Maine is already home to the most wind power production out of those states [and] a lot of that [wind generated] power is going directly into the grid and to the southern part of New England.”

As Denmark goes, could Maine?

With a landmass of 16,577 square miles, the country of Denmark is almost exactly half the size of Maine and has six-times the population of the Pine Tree State. Denmark uses close to 10,000 megawatts of power annually, about double what Maine uses. Data recently released by Energinet, the Danish national transmission system operator for the country’s electricity and natural gas, show that Denmark sourced almost half its electricity consumption from wind power in 2019, up 5 percent from 2017.

Denmark achieved this record by working to reduce costs associated with wind power production and improving its offshore wind generated power technology. In 2019, Denmark also brought the massive Horns Rev 3 offshore wind farm in the North Sea online. This wind farm has an overall production capacity of 406.7 megawatts and includes the most powerful wind turbines on the planet, each capable of producing 8.3 megawatts of power.

By producing 47 percent of its energy needs from wind generated power last year, Denmark not only broke its own production record, it set a world record. In second place is Ireland which in 2019 procuded 28 percent of its power needs from wind.

The time for Maine is now

In terms of the economy and the environment, Maine can’t afford to wait on wind power production, Thaler said, adding Denmark has set the benchmark and Maine would do well as a state to follow that country’s example.

“The bottom line is, we can’t wait to have clean power,” he said. “We are seeing sea levels rising, warming of the oceans, increases in tick populations, changes to vegetations, death of species and it goes on. We can’t sustain our current energy production lifestyle without renewable energy, and that means wind.”

Burgess agreed.

“Wind generated power is clearly a vital piece of what we need to do in order to battle climate change,” he said. “We are bringing the best and brightest from across Maine together to figure out how to deal with these issues, including wind power, because it is so important to Maine’s future.”

As the state and university continue to test and refine the offshore wind technology, Thaler said there is no reason to believe it can’t power all of Maine’s energy needs with enough left over to share with other states while meeting and exceeding the mandated legislative goals.

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.