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Sears Island selected as preferred site for offshore wind power port

Gov. Janet Mills at a press conference announcing Sears Island as the preferred site for an offshore wind port on Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2024.
Nicole Ogrysko
Maine Public file
Gov. Janet Mills at a press conference announcing Sears Island as the preferred site for an offshore wind port on Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2024.

Gov. Janet Mills announced Tuesday that her administration has selected Sears Island in Searsport as the preferred site for development of a large, offshore wind port designed to jumpstart the clean energy economy in Maine and the transition away from fossil fuels.

Selection of the site follows a public stakeholder process led by the Maine Department of Transportation and the Maine Port Authority to consider several potential options in the Port of Searsport, the Port of Eastport and the Port of Portland.

Nearly four years ago, Mills identified the Port of Searsport as the leading site in Maine to "support the transportation, assembly and fabrication of offshore wind turbines." She also called for further study of the port's assets and future needs. That study was completed in 2021.

And today, Mills said, based on input from port and offshore wind stakeholders, including the University of Maine and on technical and engineering analyses, the state has concluded that the Sears Island parcel is the most feasible port development site. It's expected to be 100 acres of development in total.

The site of a proposed offshore wind port on Sears Island.
The site of a proposed offshore wind port on Sears Island.

Mills said she didn't come to the decision lightly but believes that Sears Island is the best, least expensive and most environmentally beneficial option.

The state already owns the 940-acre island, while Mack Point is privately owned by Sprague Energy, meaning that the state would have to lease the land.

"That means that both of the upfront and ongoing costs to the people of Maine to pursue Sears Island are substantially less than if we were to pursue Mack Point," Mills told reporters Tuesday. "To use Mack Point, the state would have to lease the land from the private owner."

State officials said Sears Island is also better suited physically to support floating offshore wind. Unlike Sears Island, Mack Point would have to be dredged. Sears Island offers a large, unencumbered flat space with deep water access, and officials said it offers the most direct approach in and out of the navigation channel. Using Sears Island would minimize the impacts on existing commercial and industrial uses at Mack Point, officials added.

While the governor's decision is not a surprise, it is likely to spark strong opposition from a coalition of conservation and fishing groups who do not think the large-scale development plans are compatible with fishing in the area or with Sears Island, the largest undeveloped island in Penobscot Bay.

In fact, even before the governor called a press conference to make the announcement, the Alliance for Sears Island and other opponents were planning a rally on Wednesday afternoon. They and others have argued that nearby Mack Point is a more suitable alternative because it is developed and already contains a cargo port.

Steven Miller, executive director of the Islesboro Island Trust and the Alliance for Sears Island, says the state's decision to choose Sears Island is a violation of a pact made in 2007 to choose Mack Point as the preferred location for future marine transportation development.

"The Alliance is profoundly disappointed," Miller said. "Mack Point consolidates industry in one location. It economizes existing infrastructure like rail and road access.

The Offshore Wind Port Advisory Group toured Sears Island in November.
Murray Carpenter
Maine Public
The Offshore Wind Port Advisory Group toured Sears Island in Nov. 2022.

“This is not NIMBY. We’re YIMBY, we’re saying yes, build it in our background. But build it at Mack Point, not at Sears Island.”

Sears Island has a rich history. For thousands of years, it was stewarded by the Wabanaki who used it as a summer gathering place for hunting and fishing. Later, farmers cleared the land and grazed livestock on it. Since the 1970s, it has been targeted for several development projects, including a nuclear power plant, a coal-fired power plant and in 1996, a deepwater cargo port, supported by then-Gov. Angus King. None of them ever came to fruition. And King was deeply dismayed when federal regulators rejected the cargo port because they said it would harm the bay's ecosystem.

"Do you know what one of the issues was? One of the major environmental issues raised in connection with this project?" King said at the time. "Eelgrass. Not only eelgrass, shade on eelgrass."

More than a decade later, in 2009, Gov. John Baldacci issued an executive order reserving the right for the Department of Transportation to develop 330 acres in the island's northwest corner for a port and preserving the rest through a conservation easement that is managed by Maine Coast Heritage Trust.

Over the years, Sears Island, with its trails and beaches has become a popular place for family outings, dog walkers and hikers.

Rolf Olsen, of Friends of Sears Island, on one of the trails the group maintains on the island.
Murray Carpenter
Maine Public
Rolf Olsen, of Friends of Sears Island, on one of the trails the group maintains on the island in Nov. 2022.

Friends of Sears Island maintains its vast network of trails and has been participating in a statewide offshore wind advisory group over the last two years or so.

The friends group is among conservationists who believe that despite years of discussion about two options in Searsport, Sears Island has been the state's choice since the beginning of the process. They point to a 2021 stakeholder plan developed for the state by consultant Kay Rand.

"We think the destination has been known all along, that Sears Island was the preferred location for it, and so we will be watching for that," said Rolf Olsen of Friends of Sears Island.

Mills said she recognizes that the construction of a port is not insubstantial, and it will be a change to an area that is enjoyed by many people.

"It is the intent of the state of Maine to minimize to the greatest extent possible, development of the parcel that we own, to discourage any development that is not related to offshore wind, and to preserve the pristine character of the remaining two-thirds of the island with the easement held by Maine Coast Heritage Trust," Mills said.

The port proposal is subject to extensive and independent state and federal permitting, including assessments of environmental impacts and alternative sites. State officials said Tuesday they expect permitting to take about a year.

"Delay is not an option," said Searsport town manager James Gillway. "We have a slim but achievable pathway to transitioning to renewable energy and avoid the worst aspects of climate change."

Gillway acknowledges that not everyone is on board with Sears Island, but he said the port is a crucial starting point for Maine to transition away from fossil fuels and toward 100% renewable energy by 2040.

And he said he sees the offshore wind hub as an economic boon to midcoast communities, particularly after the Bucksport paper mill closed a decade ago.

Many conservation groups agree.

“Offshore wind will be essential to our transition away from expensive and dirty fossil fuels," said Beth Ahearn of Maine Conservation Voters. "And to realize this incredible opportunity, we need port infrastructure." She added that her group will do its part to ensure the new port "has the least impact to — and benefits for — the environment and local communities."

There's an urgency to combat climate change through wind energy and alternative sources, Steve Miller of the Alliance for Sears Island acknowledged.

"This development is about climate change, and we are in the midst of an incredibly [overwhelming] crisis with climate change," he said. "It requires thinking differently about investments, and it requires thinking differently about the choice of places to do development."

But Miller said the fastest way to jumpstart wind energy is through a new port at Mack Point. The Islesboro Islands Trust has retained legal counsel for the upcoming permitting process, which he said will be protracted.

Maine Public reporter Murray Carpenter contributed to this story.

Corrected: February 20, 2024 at 3:29 PM EST
Beth Ahearn is with Maine Conservation Voters, not the League of Conservation Voters.