Midcoast environmental groups want to keep the pressure on the state as they advocate against building a floating offshore wind assembly, manufacturing and launching facility on Sears Island.
Stephen Miller, the executive director of the Islesboro Islands Trust, announced Wednesday morning that his organization has hired a Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm to analyze Searsport offshore wind facility options on Sears Island and on Mack Point on the mainland.
Meanwhile, to bring more attention to the issue, the Friends of Sears Island has invited speakers from area environmental groups to speak at a virtual informational forum from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday night.
“This is not an issue that’s in the public spotlight,” Rolf Olsen, the vice president of the Friends of Sears Island, said. “I hope people start to think about this more, because this is important … The land that’s needed [to support offshore wind] is huge, and it’s really going to alter things here.”
Climate change and renewable energy are issues that have been front and center for Gov. Janet Mills since her election.
In 2019, Mills announced an offshore wind initiative, and a report from her office the following year touted offshore wind as a significant opportunity for economic recovery. In 2020, the governor directed the Maine Department of Transportation to look at the Port of Searsport, the state’s second-busiest port, to assess its potential to support the offshore wind industry.
The state’s goal is to use 80 percent renewable energy by 2030 and 100 percent by 2050.
Last fall, a feasibility study commissioned by the Maine DOT determined that either Sears Island or Mack Point could be good sites for a marine terminal that would serve as a centralized hub. However, the study’s engineers found that Sears Island, with a lower building cost, would be more practical for the offshore wind hub.
According to preliminary estimates, building a floating offshore wind port in two phases on Mack Point would take four years and cost around $449 million — more than $150 million more than it would to build the port on Sears Island.
Not much has changed since the study was released last November, according to Paul Merrill of the Maine DOT. The state is working to convene a stakeholder group but it hasn’t officially been formed yet.
“We are really early in this,” Merrill said. “We know there are a lot of stakeholders with varying viewpoints. We welcome the conversation.”
Although many in the region are excited that the midcoast may find itself at the forefront of the new floating offshore wind industry, the potential to build on Sears Island hasn’t sat well with environmentalists. They would like the undeveloped 940-acre island to remain that way.
For Miller, that is mainly because the island and surrounding waters are home to forests, wetlands, eel grass and essential fish habitat, and any industrial development there would change or destroy some of those things.
“Those losses would not occur if the development is done over on Mack Point,” he said. “That’s already an industrialized space.”
That’s not the case with Sears Island, which was purchased by the state of Maine in the 1990s. During the 20th century, the island was a magnet for proposed industrial developments that included a nuclear power plant, an aluminum smelter, a coal-fired generator and cargo ports. None were built.
When a company proposed building a liquid natural gas terminal there in 2003, a coalition formed to oppose it. The fight over that resulted in a long and often fraught negotiation process with Sears Island stakeholders.
In 2008, a compromise was hashed out. According to the terms, the Maine Department of Transportation would set aside 340 acres of the island as a location for a future container port, which is where the proposed wind hub would be located if it’s built there. The rest of the island would remain in conservation, with allowed uses including hiking, swimming, hunting and fishing.
Maine DOT Commissioner Bruce Van Note said recently in an interview with “Somewhere in Waldo County” that no decisions have been made about where to site a wind hub.
“It’s way too early to say,” he said. “There’s a real opportunity not only to improve the environment and the climate, but be a big economic engine for Maine as well. The port of Searsport does look to us like something that can be used to form a hub of port activity … to support this industry long-term.”
Maine is well-placed to be at the forefront of the offshore wind industry, he said, because it has “deeper water and a lot of wind.” But building the floating foundations to support the wind turbines also requires a lot of level land, because they are so large and so heavy.
“Basically, you need a big, flat area next to deep water that’s unobstructed next to the open ocean to have a viable wind port,” Van Note said.
As the conversation about the wind port moves forward, Olsen said he knows voices will speak out on all sides of the issue. He wants to make sure that the voices of Friends of Sears Island and other environmental groups are not lost in the shuffle.
“My side would say that Sears Island should be preserved and protected and used only as a very last resort for a reason that makes sense,” he said. “I don’t know what that would be.”