Business, science and development leaders gathered at the Samoset Resort in Rockport last week to share their perspectives on ocean energy projects around the world. A  panel of Maine experts talked about efforts now under way in Maine to create tidal and wind-powered energy facilities in the Gulf of Maine.
Business, science and development leaders gathered at the Samoset Resort in Rockport last week to share their perspectives on ocean energy projects around the world. A panel of Maine experts talked about efforts now under way in Maine to create tidal and wind-powered energy facilities in the Gulf of Maine.
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Enthusiasm was the hallmark of the EnergyOcean 2009 conference, held last week at the Samoset Resort in Rockport. More than 450 people from across the country and around the world involved in government, engineering and science came to Maine for four days of presentations and exhibits devoted to potential tidal, wind and wave energy to be drawn from the ocean.

From Governor Baldacci, who opened the conference on Tuesday, to former Governor Angus King and members of Maine's business and academic circles, who closed the conference on Thursday, Maine offered itself to the world as the premier place to develop ocean energy projects.

Maine has it all, said John Richardson, commissioner of the Department of Economic and Community Development. "Our motto is, 'There's more to Maine,' and that's true when it comes to ocean energy," he said. "We have the physical assets, the educational assets and, above all, the work ethic."

The people and government of Maine have both recognized that the state must end its dependence on fossil fuels, said Beth Nagusky, director of innovation at the Department of Environmental Protection and former head of Governor Baldacci's office of Energy Independence and Security. "We want to move ocean energy forward as quickly as possible," she said. Nagusky cited LD 1465, which the governor signed into law on June 4. "It sets up a 60-day general permit process for testing ocean energy projects. It also sets a date of December 15 for the state to identify five sites for ocean energy testing projects in the Gulf of Maine," Nagusky said. "Private developers or universities can start testing their equipment in January next year."

Angus King, former Maine governor and principle in Independence Wind, spoke in dramatic terms of the situation facing Maine citizens when oil prices once again rise. "Eighty percent of our energy comes from fossil fuels. Of that amount, zero percent comes from Maine. We are dependent on energy from countries that often don't like us. That is imprudent and downright dangerous," King said.

The Gulf of Maine, he said, is a great source of wind, plus Maine has a strong construction infrastructure that can be harnessed to build wind turbines and ancillary equipment. "And we have the political will. LD 1465 passed unanimously. That is an amazing political achievement," said King. He said that from a wind energy developer's point of view, expediting commercial-scale projects will depend on making the regulatory process reasonable, predictable, timely and, most importantly, harmonizing state and federal regulations pertaining to the ocean.

Generating energy from offshore wind is all well and good, but the key for Maine families is transforming that energy into heat and power for vehicles, said George Hart, director of the Ocean Energy Institute, a think tank established by energy expert Matthew Simmons, a part-time resident of Rockport. "We don't need electricity for house lights," said Hart. "Transportation and heating and cooling are the problems to be solved. The goal is to cut family energy use by threefold."

One of the obstacles comes from the very nature of wind: it doesn't blow all the time. The intermittency of wind energy can be circumvented by establishment of a North American super grid system connecting Canada, the U.S. and Mexico, said Hart.

The Gulf of Maine is an ideal place for wind energy facilities because the wind blows most steadily in the winter months, the season of the year when New England residents require the most energy to heat their homes. Hart said that use of thermal heat pumps and conversion to electric cars are methods to store and use the abundant electrical power that could come from the Gulf.
How much power is out there is staggering, according to Habib Dagher, director of the University of Maine's Advanced Structures and Composites Center. "There is 40 nuclear power plants' worth of wind energy off Maine," he said. "There's 133 gigawatts of power in the deep water alone."

Because of its exceptionally long coastline and many islands, Maine offers both shallow and deepwater possibilities to energy developers, Dagher said. "Within three nautical miles [the extent of state waters] you have 200-foot-deep water. If you go Down East and step off the Eastport dock you are in deep water right next to shore." Dagher said he envisions a floating offshore wind farm operating in Maine water between 2014 and 2018. "And we can use composite materials to build these things right here in Maine," he added.

Chris Sauer, president of Ocean Renewable Power Company, gave an update on his company's progress toward operating a commercial tidal turbine in Cobscook Bay off Eastport. "The West Passage has a current that runs up to 7 knots," Sauer said. "It's a mile wide with 200 feet of water. It's very powerful."

The company successfully tested a 30-foot pilot model which operated from December 2007 to April 2008. A 90-foot commercial-scale turbine will be installed this fall. The company just received an $800,000 grant from the Maine Technology Asset Fund, part of the Maine Technology Institute, toward the $2 million cost of the commercial version. "Maine is definitely on the map as far as tidal energy is concerned," Sauer said. "There is a tidal energy industry operating right now in Maine."

Using Maine as a base for wind, tidal or wave energy developments makes sense for many reasons, said Jeff Thaler, an environmental lawyer and co-chair of Maine's E2 Tech Council. "Maine knows where it's going and knows how it will get there, to be energy independent in ten years," Thaler said. He noted that Maine had the highest renewable energy standard, 30 percent, in the country before it increased that standard by 10 percent in 2007.

The emphasis on developing renewable energy sources is aided by the growth of business clusters necessary for innovative projects, Thaler said. "The Maine Technology Institute's seven sectors all foster environmental technology businesses," Thaler said. "We want to be high in the environmental technology business in ten years' time."

While developers are pondering multi-gigawatts of power out at sea, the residents of Vinalhaven and North Haven have begun their own smaller-scale wind farm. George Baker, chief executive officer of Fox Island Wind Power LLC, announced that construction of the facility on Vinalhaven had begun last week. Three 1.5-megawatt turbines will be located on a 190-foot hill and will generate 4.5 megawatts of electricity when they go online this fall. The $14.5 million project will meet the two islands' annual electricity needs. "But the wind blows [most] in the winter. Our population triples in the summer. We anticipate selling excess power during the winter [via the submarine cable that links the islands to the mainland] and using the remainder in the summer," Baker said.

Baker emphasized that the wind farm is a citizen-owned business, a subsidiary of the local Fox Island Electric Co-op. When the wind farm proposal came before the voters last year, 98.5 percent voted in favor of the project. He said that the support came from both sectors of the island, the year-round population which is angry about the price volatility for electricity and the summer residents, who are generally "green and concerned," said Baker.

Small wind projects are ideal for Maine, Baker emphasized. "This is replicable on other islands, small coastal towns, every place where there's a hill on the coast. There's significantly better wind here than where the wind farms are being built now in western Maine."