Summer began with Maine leaders asserting the state’s leadership on renewable energy issues, attracting an international ocean energy industry conference to Rockport and ushering in new rules for ocean energy development.

Over 450 alternative energy developers, scientists and policymakers from around the world were in Rockport from June 16-18 to talk about wind and tide power as part of the sixth annual EnergyOcean Conference. This was the first time the national event has been held in Maine, underscoring recent moves state officials have taken to get offshore wind energy development going.

Testing of offshore wind energy sites could begin as early as January 2010, after Gov. John Baldacci signed a bill in early June to streamline the permitting process for companies that want to set up renewable energy test projects in the Gulf of Maine and directs the state to identify up to five test areas by December 15.

This bill was recommended by the state’s Ocean Energy Task Force, although their final report is not due until the fall. The task force was charged with developing a strategy to develop at least 300 megawatts of offshore wind capacity by 2020.

Having a designated testing area is supposed to make Maine more competitive for federal and private sector investments. At the request of Sen. Susan Collins (D-Maine), U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu met in June with Gov. Baldacci and the rest of Maine’s Congressional delegation, as well as University of Maine professor Habib Dagher, to discuss locating a National Center for Deepwater Offshore Wind Research in Maine.

“Deep, offshore wind production, out-of-sight from land, could provide an affordable source of renewable electricity, and it would diversify Maine’s energy supply so that people could switch from using home heating oil to heat pumps, and it would create thousands of new jobs,” said Collins.

The University of Maine is already working with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory on offshore wind technologies, and construction is currently underway on a facility for wind blade prototyping. “We were well received and the secretary was genuinely interested in hearing the details of the plan,” said a hopeful Collins after the meeting.

At the conference, John Richardson, commissioner of the state Department of Economic and Community Development told attendees, “We have the environmental and marine engineering capacity, and a strong heritage in the environmental field. We have the asset of the Gulf of Maine, but we also have the people.” Richardson’s agency helped bring the conference to Maine for the first time. “Everywhere I go, my counterparts around the country talk to me about the quality of our workforce and our capacity for innovation,” he said.

Representatives from Cianbro and Bath Iron Works and Harbor Technologies and GoMOOS testified to Maine’s ability to build big things, put them in the ocean, and maintain them.

According to Habib Dagher, the University of Maine research and development site will allow testing of composite applications, engineering design, and environmental monitoring. “We have a GIS database with 200 layers of data for the Gulf of Maine, and by the end of the year we will know where that test bed is going to be,” said Dagher.

The process for selecting test sites has yet to be decided, but will likely include wind and bathymetry, with some areas delineated as off limits, such as the viewshed of Acadia National Park. The task force plans to reach out to potentially affected communities and stakeholders.

“We’re still figuring out how to put out an invitation to communities,” said Beth Negusky, of the Department of Environmental Protection. “It’s not open-ended. A community has to have the right criteria-the wind resource, deep water within state limits, etc.-but if communities are interested, they certainly can contact us and we will work with them to see if they are a candidate based on the data.”

Of course energy is not an exclusive use of the ocean, and one of the challenges in deciding on test site locations is how to integrate energy infrastructure with existing marine and coastal activities, said Paul Anderson of Maine Sea Grant, who has joined other outreach specialists from agencies and NGOs, including the Island Institute (which publishes Working Waterfront), to developing a community engagement plan and advise the task force on outreach issues.

According to Daron Threet, a lawyer with Dickstein Shapiro LLP, who worked on the LNG terminal project located offshore near Boston, ocean energy projects on the East Coast will receive more scrutiny and be more in the public eye. “Opposition groups are very organized, very well funded, and tend to be politically connected,” he said, advising developers to engage stakeholders early and often, and be open and clear about project details. “If people don’t understand a project, they’ll fill in the blanks themselves, and over time their perception can become reality.”

George Hart, of the Ocean Energy Institute of Rockland, thinks that most people in Maine are supportive of ocean energy ideas. Citing a recent Critical Insights survey, he said nine out of 10 residents under the age of 35 support wind energy, and eventually they will lose patience with continuous objectors.

This sense of urgency was echoed at the conference by former governor and land-based wind developer Angus King, “This isn’t business as usual. This isn’t a proposal for a shopping mall. This is an urgent priority to save our country.”