A story of two turbines ... and opinions aplenty

Area fishermen express their concerns about Aqua Ventus project at meeting in Boothbay
Posted:  Tuesday, January 23, 2018 - 5:45pm
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The Advanced Structures and Composites Center presented the Maine Aqua Ventus project to area fishermen and other residents in a forum at the Boothbay Fire Station Jan. 18.

The demonstration project will involve installing two floating structure windmills, producing six megawatts of electricity off the coast of Monhegan Island. Like the one-eighth scale model the university has tested off the coast of Castine, rather than anchoring the windmills directly to the ocean floor, UMaine has developed, tested and patented a method of floating and anchoring the windmills via moorings. The project will substantiate the design and the data behind the design, to grant the university claim over the license and grant it the use of the state-of-the-art technology.

The project is a culmination of university efforts and U.S. Department of Energy funding after UMaine won a national contest of over 20 companies and universities vying for the next innovative step toward renewable energy.

In attendance were fishermen from the Boothbay region, Friendship, Port Clyde, Bristol and South Bristol. Dr. Habib Dagher, professor and executive director of the center, presented the project with the aid of Matthew Nixon, oceanographer at UMaine, who will be performing ocean floor mapping, and Connie Gemmer, director of strategic communication for Power Engineers, Inc.

UMaine’s main concern is laying down a conduit to carry power generated by the turbines to the mainland. The proposed routes end in Port Clyde and Boothbay Harbor. With the turbine site adjacent to the three-mile line off of Monhegan Island, fishermen are concerned about a loss of fishing ground if that zone opens to fishermen other than those on Monhegan; and they are concerned about fishing ground lost where the cable would be resting on the bottom rather than buried. One of the greatest concerns in the room was that the project would allow companies a foot in the door to establish wind farms.

Eben Wilson of South Bristol spoke of this fear, which arose when, as Wilson put it, an unnamed Norwegian company was seeking to start a wind farm 10-15 miles south of the current site.

“Our fear is that there is going to be another company that comes in after you develop the technology and take over a bigger piece of the bottom,” said Wilson.

Dagher said the university does not want any major development in the Gulf of Maine that the fishing industry disagrees with.

“Your interests are very much our own,” said Dagher. “Let’s sign an agreement between the university and the fishing industry that would say the university will not license this technology to any company coming into the state of Maine if the fishing industry is against it. We can do this in a legal, binding agreement.”

Dustin Delano of Friendship said, “Just so you can understand some of our skepticism, there isn’t any trust between us and you because when this project first came about, it was a one-third scale project and the cable was going to be run to Monhegan. Things kept changing … we just really felt like you haven’t kept us informed at all. We’ve been in the dark. Things like that don’t go away … I don’t know what else to say – we don’t want this project to happen. We don’t want wind development in the gulf of Maine.”

Citing limited resources, changes in the parameters of the program on a federal level, and the everchanging nature of data and technological progress, both Dagher and Nixon apologized for a lack of communication.

“You’re right,” said Nixon. “I see where you’re coming from.”

Jerry Cushman of Port Clyde spoke at great length on many points, which culminated with Delano’s summation that fishermen just do not want to see offshore wind farms taking over the bottom of the ocean.

Said Cushman, “The university had a choice to apply for that grant money or not. I wish you went into solar – Tesla – and gave them a challenge in solar power versus this. I would have supported you a hundred percent … Things change and when they change, we’re the ones that take the brunt of it and we’re all wary of it. I’m sorry, but I can’t get that out of my mind.”

Nixon and Dagher attempted to bring the focus down to what the university is really asking for – an understanding that there will be only two turbines in this project for which licenses and permits have already been granted, and input on where the ocean floor cable should go since state geological surveys are not up-to-date and the fishermen know the bottom the best.

“We’re trying to test the hull to make sure the chain’s not going to come loose, that it’s not going to sink, that it’s not going to – whatever,” said Nixon. “We’ve already done that with the one-eighth and it’s been proven that it will hold up to that environment in the Gulf of Maine. But before you can get buy off from the Department of Energy, you need to show that this hull, with the turbine on the top, is actually generating electricity to show that the proof of concept is correct.”

Dagher and Nixon expect the success of this program to enable the university to sell licensing rights to a company of their choosing – most likely Cianbro, which is already directly involved with the project – so that an industry can be opened in Maine for floating turbines to be built and shipped nationally and internationally.

The tension in the room fell as the presentation came to an end and fishermen talked among themselves and with Dagher and Nixon. Several surrounded the board outlining the potential paths for the ocean floor cable and began talking about where it might be able to be buried and where it definitely would not.

“I felt very good,” Dagher said of the meeting. “I think it was a very honest discussion; we all spoke our minds and we had very good communication. I thought it was a very, very positive meeting. We’re going to meet some more, which is excellent. Our main goal is to make sure we talk and that the fishermen’s concerns are taken care of as we do this project.”

Nixon echoed Dagher’s optimism, saying the concerns that were raised had some good points.

“I think having some of the project’s biggest opponents in the room and having a civil conversation has been very helpful,” said Nixon. “I’d say we still have a lot more work to do, but this is a great start.”

Local fisherman Larry Knapp was responsible for getting together fishermen from the areas surrounding the future turbine site and was happy to assist in starting a dialogue between the university and local fishermen.

Said Knapp, “I think it was nice to reach out to the guys. The guys have a lot of concerns and I’m hoping a lot of questions got answered tonight. When questions come up in the future, now they know who to get a hold of … This is scary stuff and we’ve been through a lot, so I’m hoping that we’re opening a line of trust, here.”