PORTLAND — Maine’s basic goal for offshore energy is to produce electricity, but the larger potential is to develop the manufacturing capacity to supply ocean energy components to the world, speakers at an ocean energy conference said this morning.

“The real opportunity we see is through our R & D, manufacturing and assembly,” said Ken Fletcher, the director of Maine’s state energy office.

Fletcher’s comments came towards the end of the three-day EnergyOcean International gathering, which drew hundreds of participants to Portland from industry and government to discuss the latest developments in wind, tidal and wave power.

Speaking at a panel discussion on Maine’s ambitions for ocean energy, Fletcher sought to clarify earlier media reports that suggested the administration of Gov. Paul LePage was unsupportive of the emerging industry. The state is fully committed, Fletcher said.

But because Maine electric customers already pay above-average rates, Fletcher explained, LePage opposes policies or subsidies that could add to the burden. The governor would prefer that any above-market costs borne are by the private sector, or perhaps offset, someday, by lease payments on cross-state energy corridors.

Led by University of Maine researchers, the state is poised to test a scale model of a floating offshore wind turbine next summer near Monhegan Island. The prototype is meant to test technology ahead of a pilot wind farm in 2017, which will have a capacity of roughly 25 megawatts.

The power from the pilot project would be expensive, upwards of 20 cents per kilowatt hour. Media reports of the estimate had led the administration to publicly voice skepticism about offshore wind.

In recent days, though, Fletcher has met with university researchers and others in the industry who believe that generation costs can be cut in half with prefabricated, floating turbines by 2020. This ongoing dialogue, and a desire not to portray Maine as unfriendly to potential investors, has led the administration – through Fletcher – to be more welcoming and open to the economic potential of offshore wind.
 
Debate over rate targets has eclipsed what panel participants agreed is the wider promise of a new, natural-resource based industry. That point was stressed by representatives from two of the state’s largest employers – Cianbro Corp. and General Dymanics/Bath Iron Works – which are poised to build the test model.

Maine was once the world’s lumber capital, said Peter Vigue, Cianbro’s president and CEO. Today the state has the steady breezes, manufacturing capabilities and proximity to population centers to export offshore wind power as a commodity, and become New England’s renewable power provider.

“Why not Maine?” Vigue asked participants.

Bath Iron Works is best known for building Navy ships, but its 5,500 employees have the engineering, mechanical and design skills to construct the vessels and components needed to support ocean energy development, according to Lisa Read, the company’s project manager.

Maine businesses, panel speakers said, have a chance to participate in a supply chain that is emerging to serve the ocean energy industry.

The most-prominent example is the construction and testing of a prototype for an underwater tidal turbine in Eastport, built by Portland-based Ocean Reneable Power Co. The company has created or retained 100 jobs and spent $8 million in Maine over the past four years on services, manufacturing and other requirements, according to John Ferland, a vice president with the company. The money was spent in 13 of the state’s 16 counties.

Ocean Renewable received $14 million in federal funding and $3 million in state loans, but has also attracted $20 million in private equity. Ferland estimated that within 10 years, more than 400 jobs and $1 billion in investment could come to Maine, as the state becomes known as a center of research and development for global tidal energy development.

“Everybody knows where Eastport and Lubec, Maine, is,” Ferland said.