Rolf Olsen, vice president of Friends of Sears Island, stands on the beach on the northwestern side of Sears Island in Searsport on Thursday. A proposed offshore wind terminal slated for the western side of Sears Island, beyond the pines on the left, has drawn controversy. Olsen believes Mack Point – an industrial site across Long Cove in Searsport, right – would be a more suitable location for the development. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

SEARSPORT — At 940 acres, Sears Island is the largest uninhabited island off the coast of Maine, making it an inviting patch of ground for proposed developments such as a shipping cargo port and nuclear power plant.

For decades, however, the Penobscot Bay island has been a graveyard for major projects that never got built.

That could change in the coming years.

Gov. Janet Mills announced in February that Sears Island is the state’s preferred site for an industrial port with facilities to build, assemble and maintain floating offshore wind turbines, hundreds of feet in height. The undeveloped site would be transformed into a busy hub for ships delivering materials to build the turbines, and it would be populated by cranes, storage facilities and vehicles.

The state Department of Transportation affirmed the administration’s preference Friday when it announced it is seeking $456 million from the federal government to help pay to build the port.

Sears Island, with its proximity to rail lines and jutting into Penobscot Bay, has been promoted as a nearly ideal site for Maine to stake its claim in the offshore wind industry. The state can take advantage of the Atlantic Ocean’s powerful winds, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and advance floating offshore wind technology developed by the University of Maine, backers say.

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Some critics don’t want the project built anywhere, arguing that environmentalists overrate wind power as a zero-carbon source of energy.

“It’s time Maine drops this green energy pipe dream and instead pursue cleaner options like hydro, geothermal and nuclear energies,” Rep. Reagan Paul, R-Winterport, said shortly after Mills announced the state’s preference for Sears Island.

But among those who agree that Maine must move aggressively into wind power, there is intense debate about whether to site the terminal at Sears Island or nearby Mack Point, which already offers warehousing, liquid tank storage and dock frontage.

Many local residents and others in Maine say Mack Point is a more logical launchpad for the state’s floating wind industry, and that the state should spare tranquil Sears Island with its abundant woods, trails and views of Penobscot Bay from becoming what they fear would be an industrial zone.

“It’s a well-loved place,” said Beverly Roxby, a Belfast resident who often hikes the island’s trails. “There’s something indefinably precious.”

Signs of industrial use already abound.

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A white-and-orange barrel is perched crookedly next to a dense woodland of pine and birch trees, contributing to what Searsport resident Rolf Olsen calls a “trashy area.” A drainage pipe hangs over Penobscot Bay, and a 12-foot swath was cut through the woods by logging equipment, he said.

A berm was formed along a paved road that extends 1½ miles from a gated entrance and becomes a gravel road ending at a beach near where state officials want to build the wind port.

The proposed terminal site occupies an area on one-third of Sears Island that the state Department of Transportation has reserved for development. The other two-thirds of the island are in a permanent conservation easement held by the Maine Coast Heritage Trust.

Olsen, vice president of Friends of Sears Island, which manages the conserved part of Sears Island and favors Mack Point for the wind port, says the Sears Island area will be degraded if the wind port is built.

“This will all be basically flattened out,” he said in a grassy field surrounded by trees just yards from a beach.

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Roxby worries that the 100-acre Sears Island site eyed by the state would be marred by construction. “Access roads to trails would be dramatically changed,” she said.

Beverly Roxby, who is active with the Sierra Club of Maine, stands on the western side of Sears Island in Searsport – the site of a proposed offshore wind terminal. Roxby believes the terminal could be a “win-win” for Searsport, but only if the project is sited at nearby Mack Point – which is already an industrial setting. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

A study in November 2021 by the state Department of Transportation evaluated physical and technical characteristics of various locations around Searsport and identified several sites to consider for the offshore-wind hub, including Mack Point and the state-owned piece of Sears Island reserved for development.

It recommended that the Sears Island site be further evaluated for “potential phased development” with a more-detailed environmental assessment, geotechnical study and preliminary design work.

It also said “improvements on the protected portions of the island” should be considered.

“This work is necessary to properly evaluate impacts and alternatives and to answer anticipated questions from interested parties,” the study said.

The work has already resulted in “some tree cutting” on the parcel for test borings, said a DOT spokesperson, who added that the agency also has done regular maintenance on the island.

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A HISTORY OF DEVELOPMENT PLANS

Numerous projects to develop Sears Island have been floated over the years, including a cargo port, an aluminum smelter, an oil refinery, a nuclear power plant and a coal-fired power plant.

A proposal to build a cargo port was dropped in the 1990s following a battle over environmental issues, and a liquefied natural gas tank opposed by local residents failed 20 years ago.

Central Maine Power Co. abandoned a nuclear power plant proposal in the 1970s after a fault line was discovered.

“That didn’t go away because of activism,” Searsport Town Manager James Gillway said. “It went away because of geology.”

The desire for economic development in the region remains a motivation and a selling point for supporters of offshore wind development who cite the loss of more than 500 jobs when the Bucksport paper mill closed a decade ago.

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“Most people here know someone who was a millworker,” said Gillway, who was a security guard at the mill when he was a student at the University of Maine.

The prospect of using Sears Island to advance Maine’s wind power industry blunts arguments about the environmental price that may have to be paid with construction of a port.

Jack Shapiro, climate and clean energy director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said none of the earlier development proposals compares with the importance of offshore wind in the battle against climate change.

“The opportunity Maine has with offshore floating wind is pretty unique,” he said. “It’s not the same as (liquefied natural gas). It really isn’t the same as the other proposals.”

Friends of Sears Island is not alone in pushing for the state to consider Mack Point.

Sprague Energy, a supplier of energy products and services, says dock frontage, rail service and launching and fabrication areas at Mack Point could be an ideal alternative. Spokesman Nick Skally said Sprague will provide details in the coming weeks.

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“We’d just like all plans considered,” he said.

Olsen, of Friends of Sears Island, said he looks forward to a state analysis of the two sites before one is officially selected. A state and federal permitting process also is required.

Aimee Moffitt, a member of Alliance for Sears Island, erects a sign alongside Sears Island Road – a decades-old relic of an abandoned industrial project. The sign states opposition to a proposed offshore wind terminal slated for the western side of the island. “Why would you destroy all this green space? People love this place. Go to a place that’s already brown and industrialized and dead in the water,” said Moffitt, who prefers the port to be built at Mack Point. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

‘LET’S GET IT DONE’

Not all of the project’s supporters are choosing sides on a site.

Olsen characterizes those agnostic about the location as saying, “Let’s get it done. I don’t care where it is.”

“To me, that’s not very analytical,” he said.

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Joe Hupperich, a field organizer for the Maine Labor Climate Council that promotes union labor at green energy projects, says either location will work, as long as the project moves forward.

“We don’t have a stance on the island,” he said. “We just want to see it built.”

Sears Island and Mack Point, which would require dredging to build a port, each present environmental problems, Hupperich said.

Joe Hupperich, an organizer for the Maine Labor Climate Council, leans against a tree on the Sears Island Causeway. Hupperich is in favor of a proposed offshore wind terminal slated for Sears Island, left, for its potential to bring union jobs to Searsport and to help usher in green energy at a large scale. Mack Point, right, could also be a suitable site, he said, but it would necessitate dredging, which would have an environmental impact that wouldn’t necessarily outweigh the benefits. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Opposition to choosing Sears Island focused most recently on sand dunes. State lawmakers enacted legislation exempting the sand dunes on the site from environmental rules to authorize the state to grant a permit to build the terminal. In a sign of how contentious the issue was, the House initially rejected the measure but reversed itself after Senate approval.

Offshore wind projects face persistent problems, unrelated to siting.

Developers are struggling with inflation, high interest rates and supply chain troubles, forcing some to delay or halt projects. Offshore wind capacity in the U.S., European Union and United Kingdom is expected to reach 100 gigawatts by 2030, half the target set by governments, according to Bloomberg BNF, a research organization.

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In November 2021, Mills directed the Governor’s Energy Office, Department of Transportation and other agencies to evaluate several potential port developments and study possible offshore wind uses at locations including Eastport, Portland and Searsport. The brief was to examine how Maine can use its “extensive marine capacities” to support the offshore wind industry.

Rockweed skirts a jetty topped with driftwood from winter storms. The jetty, on the western side of Sears Island, is a decades-old relic of an abandoned industrial project. A new proposal would see the creation of an offshore wind terminal at this location. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The state says Sears Island is preferable because Maine owns the site there and dredging is not expected to be needed around the port. That means, proponents say, that it would be less costly and less damaging to the environment than some other sites.

The federal grant application announced Friday, which includes funding for a semi-submersible barge to transport components, would finance 60% of the $760 million estimated overall cost.

The remainder would be from other federal sources, the state and private sector lease payments, according to Searsport Selectboard Chair Doug Norman.

Gillway, the town manager, said he has no site preference.

James Gillway, Town Manager of Searsport, works from his desk on Thursday. A proposed offshore wind terminal slated for Sears Island has drawn controversy, with some saying the industrialized Mack Point is a better fit for the project. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Sears Island’s advantages include its deepwater port, absence of restrictions on the height of ships or cargo and nearby rail lines on the mainland, he said.

The alternative is good, too, he said.

“If it’s permitted at Mack Point, I’d show up with a shovel to help,” Gillway said.

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