The University of Maine’s bid to land $47 million from the Department of Energy to study and develop electric generation from floating turbines off the coast came up short. DOE did give UMaine and its composite R&D center $3 million to continue its work, but there’s no way to spin this as good news. At the very least, $47 million that would have circulated through the Maine economy is now bound for other states, and that’s a loss worth mourning.
But failing to land the money does not mean the vision of a new energy model has evaporated.
New technology in its design phase always carries a “wow” factor. The striking images of the floating turbine scale models we saw several years ago at UMaine’s composite center may have seduced us into thinking that the bright future had arrived. The reality—and it’s a reality that plays out with all new technology, from smart phones to nuclear power plants—is that there is a price to pay.
With smart phones have come distracted driving, possible brain disease and shorter attention spans. With nuclear power, which in the 1950s development stage was said to be “too cheap to meter,” came the threat of environmental catastrophe and a spent fuel disposal problem.
Natural gas, championed as a relatively clean and welcome domestic energy source, brought with it the problems caused by “fracking;” hydropower often means flooding huge swaths of land, ruining habitat and even displacing populations; tidal power, now being explored in eastern Washington County, has spurred opposition from environmentalists in other parts of the world.
The list goes on and on. There is no silver bullet to solve our energy challenges.
Wind turbines, even floating out of sight of most of the state’s population, will cause problems. At the test site off Monhegan where UMaine’s Aqua Ventus project would have been established, fishermen rightly worried about losing access to ocean bottom. Monhegan residents, many of whom rely on the tourist trade, worried about the visual impact of the turbines, looming over their picturesque island.
But Monhegan residents also remain in the unenviable position of paying the highest electric rates in the country, four times what those on the mainland pay. And the wind resource in the Gulf of Maine, once compared to Saudi Arabia’s oil output, endures as clean and cheap “fuel,” if somewhat fickle in reliability.
The loss of the DOE grant could be seen as a crossroads for Maine, leading some to believe offshore wind is yesterday’s news.
But walking away from the potential to build a substantial export industry through wind-generated electricity would be foolish. What we have learned is that the industry, though still in its infancy, is highly competitive. Private and public investments are necessary for Maine to stay in the game, and that investment won’t fall into our laps.
Impacts to the environment and people should never be dismissed, but at the same time, policy makers must accept that not all the costs that come with new technology can be mitigated.
Human nature leads us to ooh and ah over the latest new thing. Then, when the shine wears off, we’re tempted to feel cheated and inclined to write it off. The better response is to roll up our sleeves and keep working. The potential benefits of offshore wind generation are too great to put on the shelf.