Sears Island identified as potential hub for the state's offshore wind industry

Dec. 10—As Maine and the nation move forward with the development of offshore wind, 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 the Department of Transportation released last month suggested it could cost $284 million to build the port in two phases. But the 940-acre undeveloped island also is a conservation and recreation area that has experienced increased visitation recently, and those who love it are not all in favor of building out the port there.

"Everybody's in favor of renewable energy," Rolf Olsen, the vice president of the Friends of Sears Island, said this week. "But is it an appropriate tradeoff for the second-largest undeveloped island in Maine?"

Climate change, and renewable energy, are issues that have been front and center for Gov. Janet Mills since her election. In 2019, she announced an offshore wind initiative, and a report from her office the following year touted offshore wind as a significant opportunity for economic recovery. In 2020, she directed the Maine DOT to study the Port of Searsport to assess its potential to support the offshore wind industry.

The state's climate goals are to move to 80 percent renewable energy by 2030 and 100 percent by 2050.

In 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 Town Manager James Gillway.

"This industry is going to happen. It's happening already, and it's going to grow," he said. "It's kind of exciting to at least be considered to be part of it. We lost the Bucksport paper mill, which displaced a lot of workers. I know people who drive down to Bath Iron Works from here. That's how far they had to go to get a comparable, good-paying job. We're hopeful and optimistic that this endeavor will replace some of those jobs."

But others believe that too much could be lost if Sears Island is used as a manufacturing and staging ground for the offshore wind equipment.

"We actually are very behind, solidly, Gov. Mills' response to climate change. It's probably the most important issue to any of us right now," Steve Miller of the non-profit Islesboro Islands Trust said. "It just boggles the mind that Sears Island is even being considered. We prefer Mack Point. We think it's a fine choice. It's where all the attention should be focused — not on Sears Island."

Mack Point, located on the mainland in Searsport, is the industrial cargo port that serves this part of Maine. It's close to Sears Island, which is connected to the mainland via a causeway.

In the last 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 an eye towards potential development. But when a company proposed to build a liquid natural gas terminal there in 2003, a coalition formed to oppose it.

The gas terminal wasn't built, either, but the fight over it ultimately resulted in a long and sometimes fraught negotiation process with Sears Island stakeholders. In 2008, they settled on a compromise: the Maine DOT would set aside 340 acres of the island as a location for a future container port. The rest of the island would remain in conservation, with allowed uses including hiking, swimming, hunting, fishing and picnicking.

So far, no container port has been proposed or built on the portion of the island that has been set aside for that purpose.

Sears Island proponents, including Olsen, said that on its face the proposed offshore wind terminal doesn't seem to meet the requirements of the compromise.

"From where I sit, is this really a container or cargo port? It seems more like a manufacturing facility 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 port development on Sears Island.

Sears Island isn't the only place in consideration for offshore wind, however. The state plans to evaluate multiple port development options and study 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 should be completed in a few months, Maine Department of Transportation Commissioner Bruce Van Note said.

In the 94-page study that was released last month, engineers looked at the feasibility of constructing offshore wind port facilities in Searsport. They evaluated 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 locations that could work, the engineers found. Sears Island, though, with a lower building cost, would be more practical for the offshore wind hub, the study said.

But the engineers based their findings on known and available information, Van Note said, adding that a lot more detailed environmental assessment, geotechnical study and preliminary design work would be needed in order to determine the feasibility of Sears Island. The next step will be to do that work, and to continue to have robust engagement with stakeholders and to form an advisory committee. That is likely to happen early next year, he said.

"We can become a leader in the floating offshore wind market and capture the clean energy and jobs that come with it," Van Note said. "To do so, all interested parties will need to work collaboratively to provide the port infrastructure needed."

For many Sears Island protectors, more studies aren't really needed in order to determine that the island would be a poor place to put the offshore wind hub. But Olsen said that the Friends group is trying to not make a judgment.

"Our board believes it's not a compatible use," Olsen, of the Friends group, said. "But if there's a public outcry that yes, this is absolutely an appropriate tradeoff as a contribution to wind energy and we're willing to sacrifice Sears Island, then there it is. I tend to think that's not going to be the largest sentiment, but you never know."

For his part, Gillway, the town manager, hopes that people will be able to keep an open mind as they listen to the pros and cons of any offshore wind plan.

"I hope it doesn't create a divide amongst 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 in Searsport. I think it's win-win."