As Maine and the country move forward with offshore wind development, a recent feasibility study indicates that Sears Island in Searsport could be a good site for a marine terminal that would serve as a centralized hub for the new industry.
It would be a huge investment in the state’s energy future – the feasibility study released by the Department of Transportation last month suggested that building the port in two phases could cost $284 million. But the 940-acre undeveloped island is also a conservation and recreation area that has recently seen a surge in visitation, and not all those who love it are in favor of building the harbor there.
“Everyone is in favor of renewable energy,” Rolf Olsen, vice-president of Friends of Sears Island, said this week. “But is this an appropriate compromise for Maine’s second-largest undeveloped island?”
Climate change and renewable energy are issues that have been at the center of Governor Janet Mills’ concerns since her election. In 2019 she announced an offshore wind initiative, and a report from her office the following year presented offshore wind as a significant opportunity for economic recovery. In 2020, she led the Maine DOT to survey Searsport Harbor to assess its potential to support the offshore wind industry.
The state’s climate goals are to move to 80% renewable energy by 2030 and 100% by 2050.
At Searsport, some people are at least tentatively excited about what it could mean if the community is at the forefront of a new industry, including City Manager James Gillway.
“This industry is going to happen. It is already happening and it will grow,” he said. “It’s pretty exciting to at least be considered a part of it. We lost the Bucksport paper mill, which displaced a lot of workers. I know people who come from here to Bath Iron Works. That’s how far they had to go to get a comparable, well-paying job. We hope and are optimistic that this business will replace some of those jobs.
But others believe too many losses could be lost if Sears Island is used as a manufacturing and storage site for offshore wind equipment.
“We are actually way behind, solidly, Governor Mills’ response to climate change. It’s probably the biggest issue for all of us right now,” said Steve Miller of the non-profit Islesboro Islands Trust. “It boggles the mind that Sears Island is even being considered. We prefer Mack Point. We think it’s a good choice. That’s where all the attention should be focused, not on Sears Island.
Mack Point, located on the mainland at Searsport, is the industrial cargo port that serves this part of Maine. It is close to Sears Island, which is connected to the mainland by a causeway.
In the latter half of the 20th century, Sears Island was a magnet for proposed industrial developments, including a nuclear power plant, aluminum smelter, coal-fired generator, and cargo ports. None were ever built. In the 1990s, the State of Maine purchased the island, with a view to potential development. But when a company proposed to build a liquefied natural gas terminal there in 2003, a coalition formed to oppose it.
The gas terminal was not built either, but the fight over it eventually resulted in a long and sometimes difficult negotiation process with Sears Island stakeholders. In 2008, they reached a compromise: the Maine DOT would reserve 340 acres of the island as the location for a future container port. The rest of the island would remain in conservation, with permitted uses such as hiking, swimming, hunting, fishing and picnicking.
So far, no container port has been proposed or built on the part of the island that has been set aside for this purpose.
Sears Island supporters, including Olsen, said that on the face of it the proposed offshore wind terminal does not appear to meet the requirements of the compromise.
“From where I’m sitting, is it really a container port or a cargo port?” It’s more like a manufacturing plant to me,” he said.
Miller pointed out that according to the 2008 consensus agreement stemming from the liquid natural gas terminal dispute, preference should be given to Mack Point as an alternative to developing the port on Sears Island.
However, Sears Island is not the only location considered for offshore wind. The state plans to evaluate several port development options and investigate offshore wind uses at the ports of Searsport, Portland and Eastport. A second study examining how Portland and Eastport can support the offshore wind industry is expected to be completed within months, Maine Department of Transportation Commissioner Bruce Van Note said.
In the 94-page study published last month, engineers examined the feasibility of building offshore wind port facilities at Searsport. They assessed the physical and technical characteristics of four sites that could potentially serve as a marine terminal for a floating offshore wind port. Ultimately, Mack Point and Sears Island were identified as places that could work, the engineers found. Sears Island, however, with a lower construction cost, would be more convenient for the offshore wind hub, according to the study.
But the engineers based their conclusions on known and available information, Van Note said, adding that a much more detailed environmental assessment, geotechnical investigation and preliminary design work would be needed to determine the feasibility of Sears Island. The next step will be to do this work, continue to have strong engagement with stakeholders and form an advisory committee. That should happen early next year, he said.
“We can become a leader in the floating offshore wind market and capture clean energy and the jobs that come with it,” Van Note said. “To do this, all interested parties will need to work together to provide the necessary port infrastructure.”
For many Sears Island protectors, more studies aren’t really needed to determine that the island would be a bad place to install the offshore wind hub. But Olsen said the Friends group tries not to be judgmental.
“Our board believes this is not a consistent use,” said Friends’ Olsen. “But if there’s a public outcry that yes it’s absolutely an appropriate compromise as a contribution to wind energy and we’re willing to sacrifice Sears Island, then that’s it. I tend thinking it won’t be the most important feeling, but you never know.
For his part, Gillway, the city manager, hopes people can keep an open mind as they listen to the pros and cons of any offshore wind project.
“I hope this doesn’t drive a wedge between friends and community members,” Gillway said. “I hope they can be civil and have a good discussion. In concept, we completely support the idea of renewable energy being built at Searsport. I think it’s a win-win.