Coal came to the Maine coast as an industrial fuel beginning in the 1880s, when railroads linked the coalfields of West Virginia and Appalachia with the seaport at Newport News on the Virginia coast. This new source of energy also brought wrenching economic changes. Steamships that burned coal transformed ocean transportation, driving even the fastest clipper ships into an early grave and idling wooden shipyards throughout New England. Ironically, the cheapest way to transport the huge volumes of coal needed to supply textile mills and hundreds of other manufacturing enterprises throughout the country was on board specially designed “Downeasters,” the four, five, six and ultimately seven-masted schooners launched from Maine boatyards for a period of between 20 and 30 years before even these sailing ships became obsolete.

The era of heating with coal ended after World War II in most of New England when we began heating our homes with oil. Most coal dealers became oil dealers, but the switch to a new source of energy was expensive to those who had to replace central heating systems with new oil fired boilers. But oil was plentiful and cheap and cleaner than coal. It was probably the least difficult energy transition the country has ever made, which has led most of us to expect that developing new sources of energy to power our economy ought to be relatively painless.

One of the most interesting features of the recent political discussion of our energy dilemma is how much leadership is coming from the states and how little is coming from the federal government. Even here in Maine, in the discussion between the three major candidates for governor, there is essentially no disagreement over whether Maine should develop new sources of energy-only what type of energy that should be.

The Republican candidate, Paul LePage’s platform appears to be an “any port in a storm” policy-offshore drilling, nuclear power, offshore wind-basically whatever energy sources Maine might be able to harness. The other two candidates-Libby Mitchell, the Democrat and Eliot Cutler, the Independent are more circumspect; they are not for offshore drilling and nuclear power, but they are enthusiastically in support of new sources of energy, including offshore wind, because they believe that, without new sources of energy, our economy and homes may not be viable in the foreseeable future. Almost no one in their heart of hearts believes that Maine can continue to depend as heavily as we do on our fossil-fuel dependent sources of energy. But that’s about where the agreement ends.

Last week at an offshore wind seminar in New York, I listened to presentations that outlined the energy policies of every Atlantic state north of Virginia, all of which have either recently released, or will shortly release Requests for Proposals (RFPs) from energy developers to locate offshore wind farms off these coastlines. Another indication of how the states have taken the lead on energy policy is that 29 states currently have passed Renewable Portfolio Standards for electric utilities specifying how much power should be generated from renewable sources of energy such as wind, solar and hydro. If all these standards were to be met, 73 gigawatts of power would be coming from renewable sources (a nuclear power plant generates roughly a gigawatt of energy)-approximately half of what is currently being produced from renewable sources. Incidentally, the 4.5 MW Fox Islands Wind project sold several hundred thousand dollars worth of “renewable energy credits,” to a utility on Cape Cod so that company could meet part of its requirement.

Although the Gulf of Maine has significantly more area of significantly stronger and more reliable winds, the states to our south have much larger energy markets close at hand and wind resources blowing over shallower waters that will be less expensive to develop on a per kilowatt-hour basis. Nevertheless, the transition from a fossil fuel dependent economy to one that has higher and higher percentages of renewable energy will be expensive and wrenching. There will be terrible political battles-witness Cape Wind, the poster child for renewable energy gridlock. There will need to be subsidies-there always have been national subsidies for energy, whether for shipping coal, funding oil depletion allowances or the national highway system, to mention a few. Investing in new sources of renewable energy will take leadership and vision, and right now and for the foreseeable future, state governments are supplying these scarce political commodities.

During the foreseeable future, the rate at which offshore wind develops will be significantly influenced by whether natural gas prices stay as low as they currently are. The huge new deposits of natural gas that have been heretofore locked in unrecoverable tight shale deposits have recently hit the market, contributing to a sharp drop in gas prices, which may slow wind development. Energy companies have recently begun to unlock these deposits through a process called hydrofracking or hydraulic fracturing. This new process involves injecting very huge quantities of chemically laden water into the ground to help release the gas, which may or may not menace groundwater drinking supplies. No one knows who will end up on the winning side of that environmental argument, but wind companies will be watching closely.

But make no mistake; offshore wind will be coming to a coast near some of us. Maybe not tomorrow, but it is just over the horizon for many Atlantic shorelines, and among the key questions will be who benefits and who pays.

Philip Conkling is president of the Island Institute.