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Trip to Europe could do a lot to boost Maine's wind-power prospects

From Spain to Germany and back home again, there was much on the governor's plate.

 

I have been following the Press Herald's excellent coverage of Gov. Baldacci's trade mission to Spain and Germany. This was the first trade mission focused on one industry – wind power.

Both Spain and Germany are home to companies that have invested significantly in wind energy. Overall, both countries, like much of Europe, have developed significant (if not yet substantial) energy production from wind.

I was particularly taken by the vision described in Bremerhaven, Germany, where a significant port and cultural center has attracted a wind power business park. Four major companies have invested $250 million euros here, creating some 1,000 new jobs for the region, all related to supporting wind turbine development.

Steve Levesque, a member of the mission and executive director of the Mid-Coast Regional Redevelopment Authority, immediately saw the possibility of replicating this in Maine, perhaps as part of the redevelopment of the Brunswick Naval Air Station. This is the kind of thinking we need more of if the Maine economy is to grow over the next 10 years.

Wind energy has gotten a recent boost from the substantial stimulus money being provided by the federal government. Longer term, it is clear that wind power will provide some reasonable proportion of U.S. energy needs.

It is clean. The technology, at least for on-shore wind, is well-developed. The costs of energy produced by wind continue to come down, though federal support likely will be needed for some time yet to mitigate developmental risks.

Off-shore wind has even more promise. The wind is more reliable, and the environmental and siting concerns are less problematic. Technology issues remain, but many companies are pushing forward to develop new approaches that will work in deeper water.

All of this could be an opportunity for Maine – as many have suggested. Maine is well positioned geographically with more than 8 percent of all U.S. deep water winds, according to Department of Energy studies. Moreover, we are early enough into the game that manufacturing, technical support and supply channels are just being formed.

I was surprised a few weeks ago to receive a call from three classmates of mine from the U.S. Naval Academy who have formed a company to provide ocean support vessels for off-shore wind platforms. This group has obtained the North American rights to a vessel of European design. They called me because they believe Maine is well-positioned to be a leader in off-shore wind. They also have approached Bath Iron Works, which has expressed initial interest in building such vessels in Maine.

While all of this kind of development is some years and more than a few technical breakthroughs away, it is coming. Maine needs to be positioned to take advantage of what might be a once-in-a-generation opportunity.

Give Gov. Baldacci credit. He braved heavy seas off Norway to visit the world's first deepwater off-shore wind turbine facility. If you saw the Press Herald's picture, it showed a striking, solitary wind turbine literally rising out of the ocean – quite an engineering feat.

The governor followed the visit by signing a letter of intent with StatoilHydro, the Norwegian company that designed and built the turbine. StatoilHydro and the University of Maine will collaborate on a feasibility study to site such a wind turbine in deep water off the coast of Maine.

Sen. Susan Collins, members of whose staff were on the trade mission, has requested an earmark of $5 million in next year's budget for such a project. The university will apply to the Department of Energy for grants to move this project forward.

Rule No. 1 in strategy is to take advantage of your natural strengths. It turns out that Maine has a significant strength in the power of its off-shore wind. At a time when many of our traditional industries are declining, this is the kind of opportunity that can get people excited – just in the way Levesque was excited with what he saw in Bremerhaven.

It starts with a vision of what might be. That vision is taking shape. Now we need to follow through to become the first state with a deep-water wind turbine. This will give Maine distinctive capabilities and attract the kind of capital that Leveque saw in Bremerhaven.

What might this look like in 10 or 20 years? The governor envisions developing $20 billion worth of wind farms, creating 15,000 jobs and 5 gigawatts of clean power. Two more trade missions like this, and we may need to annex Massachusetts.