Some residents of Monhegan aren’t ready to trade their cherished natural sanctuary for cheaper electricity.
Residents and visitors to the island have submitted their concerns to the Maine Public Utilities Commission, which is considering the merits of a pilot wind-power project called Maine Aqua Ventus. The project could lead to a 50-turbine wind farm in the Gulf of Maine that could produce enough power for 6,000 homes and slash the cost of electricity on Monhegan, which is 16 miles off the mainland.
The proposed test site is about 2.9 miles off the southern shore of the 4.5-square-mile island, a haven for artists and bird-watchers where about 45 people, including eight lobstermen, live year-round.
Businesses and elected officials back the project because of its economic benefits and the potential for Maine to become a global leader in offshore wind-power development. But the scale of the project and its momentum have some island residents concerned.
In the fall, they formed a task force to act as a liaison between islanders and Maine Aqua Ventus, proposed by Maine Prime Technologies, which represents the University of Maine and two private partners, Maine-based Cianbro Corp. and Emera Inc. of Nova Scotia.
Kathie Lannicelli, a 21-year resident of the island, is on the 10-member task force. She said Friday that the panel was formed to make sure residents’ voices are heard. About half of the residents have concerns but are cautiously optimistic about the proposal, Lannicelli said, while the rest are outright opposed.
“There’s a kind of panic that this is something that’s unstoppable,” she said.
CONCERNS: NOISE, VIEWS, WILDLIFE
Supporters hope the project will secure a $46 million federal grant that could make Maine a leader in offshore wind power. They say islanders would get electricity for about 30 cents per kilowatt hour, less than half their current rate of 70 cents – the highest in the country – for 20 years.
But Winnie Murdock, a 36-year resident of the island, said people there don’t care about the cheaper electricity, and they’re not philosophically opposed to wind energy.
“We all want to do our part to stop global warming and get off fossil fuels,” she said. “We just think that if wind turbines have to be 10 miles off the coast (of Maine), why don’t they have to be 10 miles off the coast of Monhegan?”
Residents told the PUC in written comments that they worry about noise and the visual impact of two turbines and towers that would be more than 300 feet tall and float on 30-foot-tall platforms, as well as the effects on birds and marine life.
Murdock also worries about her family’s livelihood. Her husband and son are among the eight lobstermen who fish in the Monhegan Conservation Area, a 30-square-mile zone that includes the island and neighboring Manana Island. The Aqua Ventus project would be located in the conservation area, which the Legislature reserved for Monhegan’s licensed lobstermen in 1997. The proposed test site is about 2.5 square miles.
Not all Monhegan lobstermen fish in that area, Murdock said, but her family worries that those who do will crowd together to avoid the platforms and their moorings.
Some residents who expressed support to the PUC tempered it with caution.
“That isn’t to say we don’t have concerns,” wrote Matt Weber, a 19-year resident and lobsterman, “however, we feel that wind power is a positive solution to the issues around fossil fuels.”
Weber posed questions about noise and potential compensation for lobstermen, who he wrote “will certainly lose a significant chunk of our bottom.”
PROJECT CHANGES, BAD INFORMATION
Jake Ward, UMaine’s vice president for innovation and economic development, said Friday that project developers are taking the concerns seriously and communicating with residents. But he said some of the complaints are based on wrong information or a misunderstanding of the project.
For example, Ward said, some people believe the test site could become the location of a full-scale project. He said that is unlikely because a large commercial project would probably be in federal waters, farther from the island.
Nonetheless, some residents said the proposed project is much bigger than they anticipated when the waters off Monhegan were designated as a test site in 2009. Lannicelli said islanders were either supportive or indifferent then because they were told it would be a smaller-scale project that wouldn’t generate electricity.
Ward acknowledged that a smaller, prototype turbine that’s now anchored in Castine Harbor was originally destined for the Monhegan site. That unit, launched in June, is 65 feet tall.
Development delays forced researchers to change the location for the prototype from Monhegan to Castine, Ward said.
He said visual and sound modeling is under way for the larger turbines proposed for Monhegan as part of the competition for a federal grant.
“We want a project that is compatible with Monhegan while also trying to address whether these turbines can become part of grid-scale wind energy in the Gulf of Maine,” Ward said. “It really is something that, hopefully, at least the year-round folks see an opportunity and a value from.”
Advocates of the project say it would create as many as 341 jobs and trigger at least $120 million in investment, with half of it going to Maine-based companies.
Momentum grew for Maine Aqua Ventus after a competing project by the Norwegian company Statoil was scuttled amid political wrangling over an omnibus energy bill passed by the Legislature this year. Statoil had PUC approval for a project off Boothbay Harbor but withdrew after Gov. Paul LePage insisted that the UMaine proposal get a second chance to bid for the test project.
Lawmakers acceded to the governor’s demand to avoid a veto of the broader energy bill.
The LePage administration commented briefly on Maine Aqua Ventus to the PUC last week. Patrick Woodcock, the governor’s energy director, said in written comments that the proposal would likely increase electricity rates but put Maine in a strong position to get major research investments from the federal government.
FREE FOR SOME, COSTS FOR OTHERS
Timothy Schneider, LePage’s appointee to the Public Advocate’s Office, took no position on the project, but he was critical of the federal Ocean Energy Act, the project’s impact on ratepayers and a plan to provide some free electricity from the turbines to Monhegan.
Schneider wrote that free electricity could be read as an “implicit acknowledgment” that the “presence of offshore wind turbines imposes a hardship on residents of Monhegan that must be offset.” He said it could also set a precedent for future projects.
The proposal being considered by the PUC would add a small charge for 20 years to Central Maine Power Co. bills. An average residential customer would pay an additional 73 cents a month at the start, $8.70 in the first year.
Lannicelli, the island task force member, said Friday that most residents fear that they are powerless to stop the project. She said recent outreach efforts by Maine Aqua Ventus have only heightened concerns about the politics of the project.
“I think when you’re small, you have a realistic perception of how powerless you can be in a situation like this,” she said.
Lannicelli said islanders want to support wind power, but they worry about how it would affect an island that has become a spiritual and environmental haven for artists, tourists, bird watchers and residents.
“You wonder if you want to live in a world that’s more balanced for your children and your grandchildren if you’re going to have to give up something that’s precious to you,” she said.
Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at: