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Maine's big opportunity is blowing in the wind
The governor's plans for energy independence offer a breath of hope in these economic doldrums.

Once every 20 or 30 years a transformational idea comes along – an idea whose time has come.

On the national stage, it looks like this finally may be the time when forces coalesce to make a national health-care system viable.

For Maine the idea may be energy independence.

This theme of energy independence and the "new economy" were the highlight of Gov. John Baldacci's surprisingly upbeat State of the State address earlier this month.

I say surprisingly upbeat because the speech came at a time of crisis in the national economy and an ever-increasing biennial budget deficit facing Maine. Clearly the governor was taking his cue from White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and his much-repeated quote that crisis is a time of opportunity.

I say, good for the governor. We Mainers needed a dose of optimism and a touch of bravura from our leadership.

Moreover, the governor is onto something with his proposal for a Maine Energy Independence Act.

The proposal focuses substantial immediate effort, appropriately, on a significant expansion of weatherization.

He obviously means to take advantage of federal stimulus money for this effort, and he added a collaboration with Maine banks and credit unions to make it easier for people to finance energy upgrades using state loan guarantees.

Baldacci also called for the training of a "Weatherization Corps" of college students to use their summer break to work on energy-related projects. Such a program is likely too small in numbers, but this is a nice way to tap the enthusiasm of youth to help save the planet and aid some of their fellow citizens.

The governor also formally embraced a creative idea, first proposed by Peter Vigue, chairman of Cianbro Corp., to lease to Bangor Hydro 200 miles of state-owned land along Interstate 95 for high-capacity electric transmission lines.

Besides providing needed additional transmission capability, these leases would generate substantial revenue, potentially tens of millions of dollars annually.

That could be leveraged to help finance energy-related projects such as the development of offshore wind energy. This approach moved even hardened legislative veterans like Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, to flights of enthusiastic rhetoric.

Baldacci also proposed supporting the longer-term development of offshore wind energy with $7.5 million in bonding, part of a much larger $306 million bond package.

Offshore wind energy is the key to Maine's long-term energy strategy. For the past few years former Gov. Angus King and others have been promoting the potential of this great Maine resource – offshore wind to provide a substantial part of our energy needs and to create a host of new jobs.

Maine is now a high-cost energy state. We have few options to reduce our cost of energy. It is unlikely that oil will be discovered off our coast. However, we do have lots of wind and a relatively shallow ocean shelf that may permit the development of wind farms.

Offshore wind farms could be the transformational aspect of a Maine energy-independence strategy.

Given the federal government stimulus commitment to develop alternative energy sources, funding will be available to crack the technology issues that need to be addressed to make offshore wind farms feasible.

Other states on the Atlantic Seaboard are already moving forward with their planning. Maine needs to be at the forefront of offshore wind development efforts. The governor has embraced this approach.

Besides the seed money for the development of an offshore test site, the governor has also put in place an ocean energy task force of the best of Maine's business, technology and nonprofit leaders to coordinate Maine's effort.

A focused and sustained effort will be needed so that Maine can take advantage of this once-in-a-generation opportunity.

The plans the governor outlined in his State of the State are a start toward cracking the code on offshore wind energy. Lots more work, capital and luck will be needed to make this potential become reality.

Ten years from now Maine has the potential to be much less dependent on high-cost oil and to develop a significant "green" economy.

This may sound absurdly optimistic, but the opportunity is there. With all such technology development, there are a multitude of risks and uncertainties. However, our greatest risk is not following through to put the state in position to benefit from wind energy.

Let's not miss this one – the next big opportunity is not likely to be along for quite awhile.