MONHEGAN PLANTATION — When the news broke on May 7 that Maine Aqua Ventus had not received a $47 million federal grant for an offshore wind project off of Monhegan Island, Tara Hire felt one overwhelming emotion: relief.
“For me personally, it’s a relief,” Hire said. “We’re a small community. And this issue had become really divisive. We don’t need that.”
Hire, one of roughly 65 year-round residents of the island, was ambivalent about the project itself.
“I felt the project was too big for that space,” she said. “On the other hand, it would have brought reduced energy costs to this community. And it’s a shame to not follow through on it.”
Hire is one of the co-chairs of the Monhegan Energy Task Force, an organization formed by several year-round and seasonal island residents to interact directly with Maine Aqua Ventus, the developer of the project, known as MAV I. Maine Aqua Ventus is a partnership of Maine Prime Technologies, (a for-profit spin-off of the University of Maine), Maine’s largest construction firm, Cianbro, and Emera, the energy giant formerly known as Bangor Hydro.
The task force, known as METF, is unlike many other groups formed in response to wind projects in the state in that it takes no position for or against the project. Rather, it focuses on ensuring that Monhegan residents’ concerns are addressed by any developers in the state-designated test area, some two miles away.
“We have some people who are really disappointed by the news,” Hire said. “They felt [the project] would help Monhegan a lot and help the world generally. Other people were really worried about the impact it would have on tourism, because we have a lot of businesses that depend on tourists.”
Sue Hitchcox, a Monhegan resident who opposed the turbines and who serves on the energy task force, was concerned about the project’s potential impact on birds.
“Specifically, I think the project was a bad idea for Monhegan because Monhegan is a ‘hot spot’ for migrating birds,” she said. “I think wind turbines belong in the desert where there is plenty of wind and not much else.”
Hitchcox is generally wary of offshore wind and supports greater use of solar power, hydropower and wood, she said.
“It’s a disappointing decision,” said Jake Ward, vice president for innovation and economic development at the University of Maine. “But we’re happy to have been selected as an alternate.” While declining to offer the full $47 million, the Department of Energy granted Maine Aqua Ventus $3 million to finish the design and engineering work for the project over the next year, Ward said. Maine Aqua Ventus is also an alternate selection, meaning development could resume if any of the three winning projects, based in New Jersey, Oregon and Virginia, failed to meet future milestones.
The setback for the Maine Aqua Ventus project is the second high-profile reversal in the past year for offshore wind development in Maine. In October, Norwegian energy giant Statoil pulled out of a proposed $120 million wind project after the state re-opened bids for the project.
Applicants each landed a $4 million grant in 2012. Their projects were evaluated on a number of criteria, including environmental impact and the ability to lower the cost of electricity.
“They wouldn’t be sending us $3 million to finish the design work if there wasn’t some validity there,” Ward said.
The Monhegan Energy Task Force met after the decision was announced, Hire said. “We decided to continue to do the work we started, engaging with the university or any other developer that comes along.”
As for resuming the project in the future, the details of that are yet to be determined, Ward said.
“The wind resource in the Gulf of Maine is not going away,” he said. “The need for renewable power is not going away. And the need for Monhegan to find energy solutions is not going anywhere.”