My Turn: Our energy future? The answer may lie offshore
In this photo made Friday, Sept. 20, 2013, the country's first floating wind turbine, the University of Maine's 9,000-pound prototype, generates power off the coast of Castine, Maine. Records show Gov. Paul LePages administration was working behind the scenes to derail Norwegian company Statoils proposal for an offshore wind project thats projected to bring hundreds of millions of dollars in investments to the state. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)
In this Friday, Sept. 20, 2013 photo, the University of Maine's 9,000-pound prototype wind turbine generates power off the coast of Castine, Maine. It is the country's first floating wind turbine. Records show Gov. Paul LePages administration was working behind the scenes to derail Norwegian company Statoils proposal for an offshore wind project thats projected to bring hundreds of millions of dollars in investments to the state. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)
FILE - This Friday, Sept. 20, 2013 file photo shows the country's first floating wind turbine works off the coast of Castine, Maine. With Norwegian company Statoil's decision to pull its $120 million dollar project from consideration in Maine in late October 2013, the future of offshore wind production in the state now lies primarily in the hands of the University of Maine. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, files)
In this Friday, Sept. 20, 2013 photo, a lobster boat passes the country's first floating wind turbine off the coast of Castine, Maine. The University of Maine's 9,000-pound prototype has been generating power since the summer. Records show Gov. Paul LePages administration was working behind the scenes to derail Norwegian company Statoils proposal for an offshore wind project thats projected to bring hundreds of millions of dollars in investments to the state. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)
As New Hampshire begins another effort at future energy planning, and growing attention – pro and con – is being given to electricity transmission and wind power development, we need to be asking which path leads to real sustainability and what power landscape we should leave for future generations. Recent developments have focused on the state’s ridgetops and North Country, yet in the long run our attention will need to be in the opposite direction: toward the Gulf of Maine off our shores.
When thinking about future power for our region, we should consider a few basic facts of geography:
1. As any sailor knows, wind is stronger and more consistent a few miles offshore than almost anywhere on land. It is also closer to population centers – and the existing electrical grid – than most other sites being developed for wind power.
2. The U.S. Department of Energy and others calculate that there is a potential wind power resource in the Gulf of Maine – from Cape Cod to Eastport, Maine – of more than 200,000 megawatts. That’s more than six times the existing power capacity of all the New England states.
3. While wind is fairly consistent throughout the Gulf, existing deep-water ports and marine industrial facilities are not – there are only so many available to build and maintain the numerous offshore wind farms needed to tap this resource.
The future is now
What we’re talking about here is the construction of hundreds of huge floating wind turbine platforms, each about the size of a 747 jet on-end, which would be towed out to appropriate sites far offshore, moored to the ocean bottom and connected by undersea cables to bring the power onshore. This may sound like science fiction, but the future is now – there have been full-scale prototype turbines operating off the shores of Portugal and Norway, and most recently off Fukushima, Japan. Closer to home, an 1/8-scale, grid-tied turbine was installed off Castine, Maine, this past summer, and shallower water wind farms on piers have been operating throughout Europe for years. Research will determine the most cost-effective and sturdy designs, but most of what’s involved is established aeronautic, electrical and marine engineering.
Critics of wind power have often argued that it mars the natural landscape, creates noise pollution and threatens wildlife. Much of this criticism is clearly overblown when compared with other existing power sources, like coal and fracked gas, but it’s largely a nonissue when installation goes offshore.
Even with turbines this large, wind farms are out-of-sight when positioned 10 miles or more offshore, as proposed. Most marine and migrating birds stay closer to shore, as reports from wildlife experts indicate.
Consideration needs to be given to marine mammals and key fisheries, but it also turns out that floating platforms – especially those not emitting toxic oil and drilling fluids – can serve as sanctuaries for fish and other marine life.
Maine leads the way
The state of Maine has already set an ambitious goal of 5 gigawatts of power – that’s equivalent to four Seabrook plants – from offshore wind turbines by 2030. Combined with other renewable power sources, this is more than enough to power the whole state. Getting all this built and maintained off the coast of Maine is projected to bring $20 billion to the state economy and produce 16,700 jobs over 20 years.
The state is already collaborating with private industry on this plan, which calls for building at least 800 turbines and platforms, or one every week until 2030.
All this construction, staging and maintenance needs to be conducted from deepwater ports with appropriate facilities and workforce, as well as deepwater access to the Gulf of Maine. While much of this work will likely center on the Portland area, the Port of Portsmouth is also well positioned to conduct such activities, especially in the southern portion of the Gulf.
Whatever its future as a military base, the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in particular is ideally suited to play a key role in the development and installation of large offshore wind and other renewable technologies. It has the right facilities along with a workforce trained in marine engineering, construction/repair and maintenance. The Navy even has an existing program for potential public-private development projects at its facilities.
A bill will be introduced in January to set up a legislative study committee to look into our state’s energy and economic potential for offshore wind development. With so much at stake for both our environment and economy, we can’t afford not to be pursuing this vast sustainable resource right off our shores.
(Doug Bogen is executive director of the Seacoast Anti-Pollution League.)