Federal government grants Maine lease for floating offshore wind research project

The federal government has granted the state of Maine a lease for a floating offshore wind research station nearly 30 miles off the southern coast.

The 12 turbines southeast of Portland would be the first floating offshore wind research site ever built in federal waters. Governor Janet Mills' administration applied for the lease from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) in 2021, kicking off a multi-year process that included an environmental impact assessment, public meetings and engagement with the commercial fishing community.

The stated goal of the research project is to study the technology and its interaction with the surrounding environment and marine life, and to find ways to reduce potential conflicts with existing uses such as commercial fishing. The research could then influence the development of commercial offshore wind power in the Gulf of Maine, which Mills has made a key part of her administration's ambitious climate goals.

“Offshore wind energy offers our state a tremendous opportunity to harness abundant clean energy in our own backyard, create good-paying jobs and drive economic development, reduce our over-reliance on fossil fuels, and combat climate change,” Mills said in a statement. “This lease offering is an important milestone in our efforts to realize these significant economic and environmental benefits for Maine and its people, and is a recognition of our nation-leading work in responsibly developing this promising industry.”

The Gulf of Maine's nearly constant stormy weather conditions make it one of the country's most promising locations for offshore wind power. But several commercial fishing organizations in Maine and New England have opposed the Mills administration and federal regulators' push to develop offshore wind in the Gulf, arguing that it could harm their industry and marine life.

The Gulf's waters are too deep to deploy the type of turbines envisioned for many other offshore wind projects in shallower U.S. waters. Researchers at the University of Maine's Advanced Structures and Composites Center and its partner Diamond Offshore Wind have spent years developing floating wind turbine platforms that can be deployed in the Gulf's deep waters.

A federal environmental impact assessment prepared as part of the lease concluded that the research project would have “negligible to minor” impacts on marine mammals, fish, commercial fishermen and vessel traffic. While the assessment acknowledged the risk of vessel collisions with whales as well as entanglements in fishing gear during the eight-year research project, the BOEM stated that most impacts could be avoided with mitigation measures and that any impacts would not affect the viability of most species.

One possible exception is the North Atlantic right whale, an endangered species that is at the center of a years-long regulatory and legal battle between the Maine state lobster industry, environmental groups and federal agencies.

However, the BOEM assessment states: “The likelihood of a collision or entanglement (with a right whale) as a result of the proposed actions is estimated to be very low given the expected limited overall scope and duration of the planned activities.” Mitigation measures would further reduce this likelihood, the report says.

This story is a production of the New England News Collaborative. It was originally published by Maine Public.

Anna Harden

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