ORONO – This month’s Energy Ocean International Conference drew a good deal of positive attention to Maine’s ongoing efforts to develop a portfolio of clean energy options for a sustainable energy future. Portland hosted the conference, highlighting our state’s momentum in this important realm.

One conference subject, featured in news stories, was the potential for deepwater offshore wind power technology — that is, wind farms more than 20 miles offshore, away from population centers.

Wind power is not without its critics, especially those who live in proximity to wind farms. However, verifiable data, derived from a National Science Foundation EPSCoR-funded statewide survey conducted by faculty and students affiliated with the University of Maine-based Sustainability Solutions Initiative, show a clear pattern of broad-based support for this effort among Maine residents.

A group of researchers, including my faculty colleagues Caroline Noblet and Shannon McCoy, found that all types of wind energy developments are supported by an overwhelming majority (97 percent) of Mainers. Deepwater offshore wind had the highest support (about 30 percent) among those who have a preference for a specific type of wind energy.

ECONOMICS AND THE ENVIRONMENT

Why are so many Mainers supportive of wind energy? The top reasons are primarily economic and environmental. Mainers view wind energy’s potential to decrease energy prices, reduce Maine’s air pollution and increase local employment as all very important. This parallels respondents’ rankings of general concerns: 91 percent stated economic concerns are very important to them, 76 percent stated environmental concerns and a little fewer than half stated national security concerns.

The bottom line: Almost all Mainers support wind energy development in the state and many specifically support deepwater offshore wind. However, the support for wind projects, particularly offshore wind, is based upon how respondents perceive their potential as little hard data are available for these specific types of projects.

However, we do have some information. Recent research by Gary Hunt, a professor in the UMaine School of Economics, indicates that initially the price of electricity from offshore wind will be higher than the current market price. However, as more offshore wind technology gets built, prices will drop so that during the first half of the 2020s, offshore wind power is expected to be competitive in the electricity market.

Other research indicates that the industry needed to support a large-scale offshore wind project could generate up to 15,000 jobs in Maine because the industry that supports these projects tends to locate close to the project area.

Turbine manufacturers and current Maine employers like Bath Iron Works and Cianbro could take a leading role in the manufacturing and development of these wind projects. Smaller businesses, such as tugboat operators, maintenance firms and research and testing labs, would also benefit.

Finally, the economic benefits would spill over to other economic sectors not specifically tied to wind tower production. Examples include local retail stores, service firms, restaurants and the like.

COST OF COAL

Maine also faces the environmental and health costs associated with other sources of electricity production. For example, the National Academy of Sciences estimates the environmental damage of coal-based electricity production runs around $62 billion per year. Some of those costs include mercury contamination of our waters and fish.

Remember that a few years ago Maine sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency because we were tired of this pollution coming from Midwest coal-fired power plants. It would be a bit hypocritical to condemn coal-fired plants while continuing to buy coal-based electricity (currently the source of about 8 percent of Maine’s electricity). Developing clean energy technology, using our own natural resources, is both responsible and practical.

So where does this put us? Mainers support wind energy and its potential economic, environmental and security benefits. Outside investors also see the promise of offshore wind as they are considering the investment of billions of dollars.

A project with such broad support among residents and financial backers represents a prime opportunity for us to do good while still being “open for business.”

– Special to the Telegram