Hope Floats in Maine

An unlikely coalition makes headway to launch the country’s first floating offshore wind farm

By Kea Krause

January 8, 2024

Offshore wind turbine floats off the coast of Maine with a lobster boat and forest in the background

A lobster boat passes the country's first floating wind turbine off the coast of Castine, Maine. The University of Maine's 9,000-pound prototype has been generating power since 2013.

For generations, the deep waters in the Gulf of Maine have been the life source for the robust fishing and tourism economies for which the state is known. But today, the region is poised to provide a new resource: wind power. As offshore wind farms grow in number both here and abroad, they do so mostly in the category of fixed-bottom turbines where the machinery is connected directly to the seabed and, therefore, directly to the grid. In the case of the Gulf of Maine, the water is so deep, nearing depths of 1,200 feet in certain places, that the standard fix-bottom wind turbine we’ve come to know, like in the Block Island Wind Farm and the Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind project, just won’t do. For offshore wind to work in Maine, it will have to float.

This is why Habib Dagher, professor of structural and civil engineering at the University of Maine, set his sights on designing floating turbines and, along with four colleagues, founded the Advanced Structures & Composites Center at the school in 1996. Since then, Dagher, his colleague Anthony Viselli, and two others created VolturnUS, a floating concrete platform designed to support wind turbines—a novel technology that has elevated the state into a leadership role in the field. This summer, Governor Janet Mills signed LD 1895, a bill calling for the procurement of offshore wind in the gulf, which accompanied additional legislation to study the lease site where the windmills will be launched. The bill passed on bipartisan lines, and if all goes as planned, Maine could be producing 3 gigawatts of floating wind power by 2040, enough that the state could even export power regionally to New Hampshire and Massachusetts. By some estimates, Maine's offshore wind could eventually even power all of New England.

Momentum for this project is seemingly everywhere. Engineering efforts at the University of Maine have been shored up by a growing organizing coalition of environmental and labor groups. As the state moves forward on a 12-wind-turbine research project 30 miles off the coast of Portland, Maine, stakeholders are on the front lines of establishing just how to get such a large infrastructure project done quickly—and inclusively—which they argue is the only way to decarbonize responsibly. Many people working on floating offshore wind in Maine know they have an audience: Experts believe that because of the limited shallow shoreline that predominates most coasts, the future of offshore wind worldwide is floating, which puts Maine at the forefront of the challenge where outsiders are watching to see if it gets done, and how.

In the case of how the state will accomplish floating wind, historical context matters. The push toward inclusion is, one could argue, the Maine way. The state is small, with 75 percent of its coastal towns having populations of 3,500 people or less and just 1.3 million residents total. Such a place prides itself on its individualistic, hardworking, and often vocal factions of people making up the populace, most of whom want—and deserve—a seat at the table when it comes to making big decisions about the state’s future. “This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reinvest in many of our coastal communities and inland communities that have seen 50 years of deindustrialization, job loss, and hollowing out of their economies,” Francis Eanes, executive director of Maine Labor Climate Council, told Sierra. “From an equity standpoint, we have both an opportunity and an obligation to think about how we design that industry from the ground up in a fundamentally different way than past energy systems have been developed.” 

Eanes, among many others, worked on drafting the bill, which took into account the feedback of as many stakeholders as possible. This cohort included environmental groups, workers' labor unions, and surprisingly, Maine’s largest lobster fishing union, and formed a coalition that aspired to include as many voices as possible, as early as possible. When it comes to moving the needle on ambitious climate infrastructure initiatives, coalitions, when done right, have a lot of power. 

But despite best efforts, not every group in Maine was adequately represented by LD 1895, and in August, several pro-wind parties, including the Natural Resources Council of Maine (NRCM) and the Maine Climate Labor Council, sent an open letter to Governor Mills suggesting her administration do more to collaborate with Maine’s Wabanaki Nation. The letter reaffirmed signers’ support for achieving 100 percent renewable electricity by 2040 but called for “meaningful consultation” with the state’s Indigenous groups. “We join with the four Wabanaki Nations representing five communities—the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians, the Mi’kmaq Nation, the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Indian Township, the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Sipayik, and the Penobscot Nation—in urging the state to expand upon recent efforts to facilitate meaningful consultation with these Nations as this homegrown industry is developed,” the letter stated. Though no tribal representatives signed the letter, it was the coalition’s attempt to recognize as early in the process as possible that everyone needed to do better when it came to inclusion.

Perhaps one of the biggest questions labor, climate, and environmental justice leaders are wrestling with is how to both move quickly on ambitious projects while also making sure past transgressions, like the omission of Indigenous voices from the decision-making process, aren’t repeated. Eanes sees it this way. “The need for speed, scope, and scale is real. The urgency is real,” he explained.  “And that is fundamentally at odds with the idea of a deeply inclusive process where everyone is not just consulted or invited to a table but actually is given the resources to participate and understand and shape, and actually have power and influence over the outcome.” Figuring out this balance, though, is imperative to getting it right moving forward. “[This is our chance] to bring everyone along in an equitable manner and not to further the injustices of the fossil fuel world we live in,” said Amy Eshoo, director of Maine Climate Action Now, who also signed the letter.

Luckily, as the project advances, more opportunities to do right by stakeholders will present themselves and the next one is likely to be the debate over where to establish a port city for the project. “[The platforms on which the wind turbines will float] are sort of these big barges,” explained Jack Shapiro, the Natural Resources Council’s climate and clean energy director, who also worked on LD 1895. “And what that essentially is, is shipbuilding. That's something that Maine has a lot of experience with—we've got the Portsmouth Naval shipyards; we've got the Bath Iron Works. To unlock that potential for Maine, we're going to need, as a state, to construct a port facility that is dedicated to building these turbines.” Without a port, Maine would have to outsource its supply chain to other facilities around New England, thus jeopardizing all the economic benefits floating wind has the potential to bring to the state.

Despite some initial wins in the drafting of LD 1895, there is consensus that there is so much more to learn and correct moving forward. “Right now, everyone is trying to understand, 'How do we do this in a way that gets these projects built?'” Shapiro mused. “We're all looking to each other. We all need to be trying to learn as many lessons as we can from each other to ensure that we're able to develop this and develop it responsibly and do it in a way that matches the urgency of our current challenge.”

With work like Dagher’s, Eanes’, and others’, Maine’s offshore wind potential is transforming from a napkin-drawn dream into a reality, with the state’s maritime past and small-state cooperation as two of the drivers of progress. “I think that if we are going to be successful, it'll be because of who's in the coalition, who we're trying to bring into the coalition, and how we're trying to work as a coalition to find compromise,” said Eanes. “[I’m not talking] in a wishy-washy, Pollyannaish way, but about real compromise that takes seriously the fundamental needs that different interests have as thresholds to move forward together. I think that could be a model, not just on offshore wind, but it could also be a model for how we think about the clean energy transition writ large.”