Maine will create the nation’s first floating offshore wind farm dedicated to research, Gov. Janet Mills announced Friday.

The project would include as many as a dozen turbines floating 20 to 40 miles offshore in the Gulf of Maine. The turbines would send power to the mainland electric grid in the southern half of the state, according to the announcement.

But the primary purpose of the project would be research, with a goal of working with the fishing industry to develop the technology in a sustainable way, the governor said.

“I believe Maine can lead the country in floating offshore wind technology,” Mills said in her written announcement. “But it must be done in partnership with Maine’s fishermen, to form a science-based mutual understanding of how best to design and operate floating wind turbines in the precious Gulf of Maine.”

The project was praised by many, including Maine’s congressional delegation, while some groups raised concerns about the potential impact on migratory birds, other wildlife, fisheries and the fishermen who depend on them for their livelihoods.

The relatively small research array would occupy about 16 square miles of ocean – commercial offshore wind lease areas elsewhere along the East Coast are about 10 times larger.

Partners in the research project include the University of Maine, whose floating foundations will be used in the array. Development of the array will be led by New England Aqua Ventus, which is a joint venture of Diamond Offshore Wind, a subsidiary of Mitsubishi Corp.; and RWE Renewables, one of the world’s largest offshore wind energy companies.

Among private efforts to establish commercial wind farms off the East Coast, most are in shallower inshore waters where the turbines can be anchored to the sea floor. However, several companies are working with Aqua Ventus on a separate plan to create a single-turbine floating wind demonstration project near Monhegan Island that would be 14 miles offshore.

Only a few floating wind power arrays now operate in the world, in places such as Scotland and Portugal. Maine officials want to conduct research on marine impacts as the technology is developing in the Unites States, rather than after it has already been deployed, according to a fact sheet about the research project.

State officials intend to file an application for the research array with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. The agency oversees renewable energy development in federal waters, which begin more than three miles off the coast.

The location for the turbines hasn’t been identified, but the state is seeking a site that would minimize impact on fishing activity, limit visibility from the coastline and be away from highly trafficked waters and other offshore activities.

The cost of the project is unknown and will depend on the scale and designs, state officials said. They hope it will be operating within about 5 years.

In October, Maine received a $2.17 million grant from the U.S. Economic Development Agency to support long-term planning for offshore wind with fishery, business, environmental and science representatives, as well as assessing  port and infrastructure needs, and evaluating the supply chain, manufacturing, and workforce opportunities.

The Outer Continental Shelf of the Gulf of Maine is thought to have valuable potential for generating clean energy because of strong and consistent winds. Deep water wind farms are still in the development phase in the United States, and the University of Maine has focused on the technologies and materials to support the effort.

The small offshore array would be created in collaboration with the fishing industry and take into consideration how the technology affects the fisheries and the marine environment overall, Mills said.

“A research area is a prudent step toward securing our state’s leadership position, working collaboratively with fishermen and scientists, and developing offshore wind to realize the significant energy, economic and climate benefits it stands to offer our state,” Mills said.

Despite Mills’ up-front assurances, the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association expressed concern about losing a large swath of open ocean and the potential closing of fishing grounds for as long as 30 years under a typical wind farm lease.

“The loss of 16 (square) miles of fishing grounds has the potential to have a profoundly negative impact on some of our most cherished fishing communities,” Ben Martens, the association’s executive director, said in a written statement.

“Fishermen are on the front lines of climate change as shifting fish stocks and rising oceans impact their daily lives,” Martens said. “Developing renewable energy solutions is an important component to addressing our shared climate crisis, but it shouldn’t be at the expense of the iconic fishermen, seafood providers and fishing communities who keep us fed and support the local economy.”

The association urged the Mills’ administration to establish a transparent outreach program that ensures fishermen are included throughout the decision-making process for the wind farm.

“We have some real concerns with the speed at which this process seems to be moving,” said Alex Todd, the association’s board chairman. “We hope that the governor’s office will take the time necessary to truly engage and listen to the fishing industry.”

State Rep. Genevieve McDonald, D-Stonington, acknowledged the need to include fishermen and other community members in developing the research project. She’s a commercial fisherman and a fisheries liaison for Aqua Ventus on the Monhegan demonstration project.

“It is imperative that any development in the Gulf of Maine includes robust engagement with the commercial fishing industry in every step of the decision-making process,” McDonald said in a written statement. “The sustainability and success of our fisheries is vital to Maine’s economy and cultural identity. Renewable energy is an important step towards protecting the Gulf of Maine and our marine ecosystem for future generations.”

Maine Audubon’s response to Mills’ announcement was swift and positive, with some reservations about the plan’s potential impact on migratory birds and other wildlife.

“We are excited by this announcement from Gov. Mills, which will help put Maine on a path toward meeting climate goals needed to protect Maine’s wildlife and wildlife habitat,” said Eliza Donoghue, Maine Audubon’s advocacy director and staff lawyer.

“The incredible promise of offshore wind in the Gulf of Maine means that the state could power our homes and our economy with renewable, locally produced energy,” Donoghue said in a written statement. “But much more study is needed to ensure that offshore wind is developed responsibly and safely. Maine Audubon is eager to work with the state to help better understand the potential impacts of floating offshore wind turbines on migratory birds and other wildlife.”

Catherine Bowes, offshore wind program director at the National Wildlife Federation, said Mills “is setting an example for how states can take bold steps on offshore wind power. We look forward to working together to advance floating offshore wind energy in a way that protects our coastal and marine wildlife, workers and communities.”

David Costello, climate and clean energy director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said Mills “has put forth a plan for developing offshore wind in a smart way that will both create high-quality jobs and ​ameliorate concerns of the state’s ​vital fishing communities.”

Others showing support included Dana Connors, president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, who said “offshore wind is an enormous opportunity for Maine’s energy and marine businesses to further strengthen the state’s economy.”

Grant Provost, business agent for Ironworkers Local 7, said the project is “a great way to create good-paying, working-class jobs to keep Mainers in the state. We have the skilled union workforce to do the job right and we’re ready to get to work.”

The fact that the project is slated for federal waters and will need a permit from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management suggests that a delay in the state’s timeline is inevitable.

The bureau already is under great strain to review several large-scale offshore wind projects proposed in the Atlantic. All of them are closer to shore and involve conventional towers sunk into the seabed, not floating, semi-submersible hulls as is being proposed off Maine’s coast.

The permitting delay is likely to continue despite President-elect Biden’s clean-energy priorities, offshore wind developers said at a conference last month hosted by the American Wind Energy Association, although greater funding could help. The agency has decided to conduct a more-comprehensive review of multiple projects proposed for the region, leading to a backlog.

For instance, the bureau has delayed review of Vineyard Wind in Massachusetts for more than a year and a half. It’s now aiming to issue a construction permit for the $2.8 billion, 800-megawatt project in mid-December. The permit initially was expected late in 2019.

Staff Writer Tux Turkel contributed to this report.

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