Strong winds off the coast of Maine are a potentially steady source of renewable energy —but offshore wind farms are also a source of contention among the state’s coastal residents.

Many recognize the dire need to implement actions to combat climate change and to wean their state off of dependence on foreign oil.  But offshore wind opponents do not want to compromise their current way of life or alter the aesthetics of the natural surroundings they have come to love.

The emerging debate is a classic example of a collective action problem, conclude University of Maine researchers in a study published earlier this year at the journal Economic Anthropology. What may be in the best long-term interest of the broader community may not always be perceived by some to be in their short-term interests.

Under such conditions, a vocal minority of opponents has the potential to block wind power development.

To understand community perceptions of offshore wind power, in a 2011 survey, Acheson and his co-author surveyed 401 business owners, land owners, and members of the fishing industry living in the Midcoast region of Maine. They supplemented their survey findings with observations made at local town meetings and forums that had discussed offshore wind power.

Overall, more than 60 percent of respondents to the survey agreed that offshore wind power would result in jobs for Maine’s coastal workers, help reduce reliance on foreign oil, and reduce greenhouse gases.

Based on the survey results, James believes that the hospitality industry in particular welcomes offshore wind power. “People in the hotel [business] seem to think that it will attract tourists who will come to see the wind farms. There’s no evidence that it will detract from the tourist business,” he says.

Not In My Coastal Community

Those working in the fishing industry, however, were more negative in their outlook. They feared that offshore wind power would force them to abandon their fishing grounds, and that turbines would create gear tangles and navigational hazards.

But some business owners and land owners also joined the fishing industry in voicing their concerns. They cited the negative consequences of “appearance” or “aesthetics” and the potential harm to birds and whales.

Acheson believes that some opponents may be confusing offshore wind power with controversies over land-based wind projects, assuming they would be similarly noisy and unsightly. But the offshore projects are designed to be 3 to 20 miles off the coast. “Offshore wind farms are so foreign to them, they don’t realize that they’d be much more attractive,” he says.

Similarly, in fearing that offshore wind farms pose a threat to wildlife and the fishing industry, opponents overlook that climate change has already proven to be far more destructive to fishing stocks. Populations of cod, haddock, lobster and halibut have declined sharply due to warming Gulf of Maine waters.

Classic “Not-In-My-Backyard” sentiments also play a role, with a small but vocal minority of NIMBY opponents sometimes promoting well-intentioned but misleading fears.

In discussing the community of Bristol, Acheson says “there’s an anti-turbine movement here because the actual cable carrying the electricity would be coming ashore” in the town. “Fishermen fear disruption to the ocean floor, but the truth is the bay where they’re coming in already has cables in it. It’s surprising how many underwater cables already exist in Maine. It’s not at all certain that another cable will make a difference, but it’s a rallying point.”

Sending Mixed Signals

Acheson’s also points to the influence of Maine’s governor Paul LePage who advocates bringing in more natural gas via pipelines and obtaining power from Hydro Quebec through the construction of new transmission lines. In doing so, he has sent mixed signals to offshore wind developers about the technology’s future.

“You can’t have a governor who opposes offshore wind and expect to make any headway. Most companies hear the that governor is against it, and pull out right away,” says Acheson.

In 2011, Statoil, a Norwegian government–owned company canceled a proposed offshore wind farm after LePage reneged on the agreement. Statoil took its business to Scotland.

“Statoil was a unique opportunity – Maine needs a huge amount of capital to develop offshore wind. I think people in Maine will be very sorry they passed up Statoil’s offer,” Acheson says.

Adding to public confusion, last year the University of Maine was on the waitlist to receive money from the Department of Energy to begin building full-scale models of floating wind turbines, which they successfully tested in 2014. In anticipation of funding, the state university started advertising their offshore wind project to promote public awareness.

However, when they never received the grant money, the ads stopped. Acheson says, “As a result, people in the state of Maine lost interest and [now] offshore wind doesn’t seem to be on the table.”

–Sophia Fox-Sowell is a first year graduate student in Northeastern’s Media Innovation Program. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in English & Anthropology from Wagner College and currently writes for New York Moves Magazine, Cityist, and the Standard Culture.

Photo: Anti–wind turbine float, Round Pond, Maine, Independence Day parade, 2014. Photograph by Ann Acheson.

See also:

Floating wind farms would be a big boost to Maine’s economy, but they depend on Federal funding