Examples of different floating offshore wind turbines that might be manufactured at the proposed Searsport wind hub. Credit: Courtesy of Maine DOT

As the Maine Department of Transportation gears up to do exploratory work on Sears Island, which has been identified as one of the sites for a potential wind port for Maine, a local land trust is pushing back.  

The Islesboro Islands Trust on Tuesday asked Maine DOT Commissioner Bruce Van Note to withdraw the permit application that has been filed with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. The permit would allow the Maine DOT to selectively clear trees, and do marine- and land-based borings and test pit explorations on the site.

The group sent the letter to Van Note just a week before the first meeting of the Offshore Wind Port Advisory Group, a group of 19 stakeholders who will advise the Maine DOT, the Governor’s Energy Office and other state officials on the development of a wind port. The initial meeting will be held from 9 a.m. – 1 p.m. on Thursday, May 26, at the Searsport Town Office.  

“The work itself is of concern to us, but I think it’s more what the work represents,” Steve Miller, the executive director of the land trust and a member of the wind port advisory group, said. “We’re concerned about the integrity of the process by the DOT showing a clear preference for Sears Island.”

The land trust is among the groups advocating against building the wind assembly, manufacturing and launching facility on Sears Island, an undeveloped 940-acre island that is owned by the state. Instead, they would prefer the state focus its gaze on Mack Point on the Searsport mainland, which already is an industrial port.  

In 2020, Gov. Janet Mills directed the Maine DOT 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. But the study’s engineers found that Sears Island would be a more practical location for the offshore wind hub because the costs would likely be lower.

Preliminary estimates indicate that building the facility on Mack Point would take four years and cost nearly $500 million. On Sears Island, the work would cost more than $150 million less, according to the feasibility study.

But midcoast environmentalists would like Sears Island to remain undeveloped. During the 20th century, the island was a magnet for major proposed industrial developments which never came to fruition, including a nuclear power plant, an aluminum smelter, a coal-fired generator and cargo ports. In 2003, when a company proposed building a liquid natural gas terminal there, a coalition formed to oppose it.

The fight over the liquid natural gas terminal resulted in a long, often-fraught negotiation process with Sears Island stakeholders, and in 2007, a compromise was hashed out. The terms included the Maine DOT setting aside 340 acres of the island as a location for a future container port, which is where the proposed wind hub would be located. The rest of the island would remain in conservation. According to that consensus agreement, the Maine DOT would try to meet marine transportation needs at the Mack Point port facility before seeking to develop Sears Island.

Miller called the Maine DOT’s efforts to do geotechnical exploration on Sears Island an “apparent disregard” of the consensus agreement.

“It is inappropriate for the DOT to initiate the development process for a fabrication site and port at Sears Island before full consideration is given to the Mack Point site,” he said in the letter to Van Note.

But Paul Merrill, the director of communications for the Maine DOT, said that the work on Sears Island is needed to provide data about subsurface conditions and materials at the site. It would be used to assess site condition risks, impacts and cost estimates, he said, adding that the DOT already has substantial geotechnical data from the Mack Point site.

“The information collected will help answer likely questions from the state’s Offshore Wind Port Advisory Group and others,” he said. “We expect the members of the group to have varying perspectives and to engage in robust and thoughtful discussions regarding the potential for port development to support the rapidly growing offshore wind market.”

That doesn’t do much to reassure people like Rolf Olsen of the Friends of Sears Island and a member of the Offshore Wind Port Advisory Group.

“There’s some anxiety here at Friends of Sears Island that a decision has basically been made that Sears Island is the first choice for this, and that’s the direction they’re working towards,” Olsen said.

But it does make sense to James Gillway, the Searsport town manager and co-chair of the advisory group.

“I think that’s data that the offshore wind advisory group is going to need to give an informed opinion to the Maine DOT about siting,” he said. “We don’t know what’s underground.”

In the 1970s, he said, engineers “dug a hole all the way to the bedrock” while exploring the notion of building a nuclear power plant on the island.

“Back then, they dug a big pit. Now they’re doing some test borings with a machine to see what’s underground,” Gillway said. “There’s a lot of unknowns about what lies before the surface on Sears Island.”