This story is part of Maine Public’s series “Climate Driven: A deep dive into Maine’s response, one county at a time.”
It was a bright fall day, and Maine Department of Transportation Commissioner Bruce Van Note was standing on a pile of rocks sticking out into Penobscot Bay.
“We’re at the end of the jetty on Sears Island as part of a process to figure out whether and where Maine can build a wind port to create clean renewable energy and fight climate change,” he said. ”So that’s what this is all about, that’s the big picture.”
Van Note was touring the island with the Offshore Wind Port Advisory Group, which is tasked with determining the best site for a large port to serve offshore wind turbines.
For decades, Sears Island in northern Penobscot Bay has been caught between development proposals and the environmentalists who want to conserve it. But the most recent conflict is a bit trickier — as it involves a green-energy project.
This is just the most recent development proposed for the 940-acre state-owned island with a rich history. For thousands of years, it was a summer gathering spot for the Wabanaki people. Later, farmers cleared the land and grazed livestock.
Since the 1970s, multiple developments have been proposed — including a nuclear power plant and a coal-fired power plant. None came to fruition. In 1996, a proposed cargo port project was rejected after federal regulators found it would harm the bay’s ecosystem, which frustrated then-Gov. Angus King.
“Do you know what one of the issues was? One of the major environmental issues raised in connection with this project?” King said. “Eelgrass. Not only eelgrass, shade on eelgrass.”
More than a decade later, in 2009, Gov. John Baldacci issued an executive order reserving the right for the Department of Transportation to develop 330 acres in the island’s northwest corner for a port, and preserving the rest through a conservation easement.
The latest proposal is to build a large port to assemble floating wind turbines and ship them more than 20 miles offshore, where they’d be anchored to the sea bed. It’s too early to say how many turbines might be deployed, but the state climate council considers offshore wind an important step in achieving its goal of carbon neutrality by 2045.
During the November tour, Matthew Burns, executive director of the Maine Port Authority, said a port would have to be large.
“So an area that we’re conceptualizing right now to be able to build the floating foundations, launch them in the water, and do the wind turbine generator assembly, we’re approximating about 100 acres,” Burns said.
He said the turbines could be more than 800 feet tall, from the waterline to the apex of the blade.
“So they are quite massive,” Burns said. “And we’re scaling up or kind of conceptualizing about a 20 megawatt turbine size here.”
Few places in Maine have a large enough area adjacent to deep water to host such a port. But the state is considering another possible site that happens to be just a half mile north, as the gull flies. So from Sears Island, the group continued its tour by heading to the busy port of Mack Point on the Searsport mainland. Sprague Energy’s Jim Therriault told the visitors they’ll start near a bulk cargo dock.
“We’ll go down between the two warehouses after that, and you can kind of see that whole open area,” he said. “Then we’ll finish by going up top where the defense fuel tanks are. So we’ll get three good points to be able to see everything that’s happening.”
Therriault explained how some of the land along the water could be repurposed to host the wind port. And he pointed out that components for most of Maine’s onshore wind turbines, and some in New Hampshire and Vermont, have been shipped via Mack Point since 2005.
Therriault said Sprague would like to host a wind port at Mack Point, in a public-private partnership. And that’s also the location preferred by several environmental organizations, including the Maine Chapter of the Sierra Club, and the Friends of Sears Island.
“Building the wind port there would be using brownfield development for green energy development which seems like a no-brainer to me,” said Rolf Olsen, of Friends of Sears Island. “It’s my understanding that Sprague, who operates and owns the port land, is very supportive. And they are making every effort to be accommodating to the 100, give or take, acres that the state has determined is necessary for it. So the land is available, the land owner is a willing partner, and it makes sense to us.”
The friends group has developed miles of trails on Sears Island, which have become popular for hiking, birding and dog walking. And some like to walk its five-mile perimeter at low tide. Olsen said even though two-thirds of the island will remain in conservation, the traffic and noise from a busy port would entirely alter the island’s character.
“Now I’m not dumb, I know that global warming is an issue,” he said. “I know that we need to find all sorts of new forms of renewable energy. And if that has to happen, then things will be quite different.”
An engineering study found that building a port would cost a minimum of $250 million. The Sears Island site would be cheaper and require less dredging than Mack Point, but would take longer to complete. The study suggests a possible combination of both ports. And the state is also considering a site in Eastport.
A 2021 stakeholder plan developed for the state by consultant Kay Rand, which the Islesboro Islands Trust obtained through a records request, suggested a preference for Sears Island. As a goal, the plan states, “Maine is committed to developing the port infrastructure at Sears Island to be the Renewable Energy Port of the Northeast….”
But Department of Transportation spokesperson Paul Merrill said the agency will select the site that best meets the project purpose, and is the least environmentally damaging.
Wherever it’s located, Van Note said a regional wind port seems a natural fit for Maine.
“A bunch of states are looking to do something,” he said. “But having big enough, flat enough, next to deep enough water really does put Maine at a potentially competitive advantage, if we can find our way clear to all coming together and deciding this is something we want to do.”
Merrill said the commissioner will take into consideration comments from the task force before choosing a site, possibly by summer.
This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.