Climate change: Both threat and opportunity

Nov 19, 2020

Businesses will get a glimpse of the future this week when the partnership developing the nation’s first floating wind-energy project opens an online portal for prospective suppliers and service providers.

After a dozen years of work, the technology conceived at the University of Maine and brought to market by Maine Aqua Ventus is getting close to setting up a full-size wind turbine on a floating concrete platform that will be anchored in state waters, 2 miles south of Monhegan Island and 14 miles from shore. The demonstration project will show how the technology holds up to the elements and will help write the rules on how offshore wind can coexist with traditional marine activities.

The project is still a long way from generating a significant amount of electricity — the single turbine is not expected to be in the water until 2023 — but it’s not too soon to start generating jobs. It has the backing of more than $47 million from the U.S. Department of Energy and a $100 million investment from two green-energy companies that came on board this summer. Developers predict it will produce $125 million in economic activity in Maine and create hundreds of jobs during the construction period, which begins in 2022. Maine companies will get the opportunity to bid on parts of the project when it is still relatively small, giving them a chance to become part of the supply chain and grow with a new industry.

The offshore wind project illustrates the paradox of climate change: It is both a threat to life as we know it and an opportunity to build a better future.

Environmentalists and energy experts are nearly unanimous that the only way to reduce the greenhouse-gas emissions that cause climate change is to make two simultaneous transitions. We need to use electricity instead of oil and gas for all our needs — including transportation and home heating, and we need to generate electricity from renewable sources instead of fossil fuels. Since the infrastructure needed to accomplish those transitions does not exist, it will require enormous public and private investment to create it.

And that’s the economic opportunity for Maine that won’t be limited to offshore wind. A recently issued state report identifies climate response as a key strategy for rebuilding an economy that has been set back by the coronavirus pandemic.

Clean-energy jobs include weatherizing houses, installing and maintaining heating systems and building wind and solar projects. There are nearly 9,000 jobs in the sector now, and it is poised for “robust growth” as renewable-energy mandates increase demand, according to the report’s authors in the governor’s Energy Office and the Office for Policy Innovation and the Future.  Other jobs will come from modernizing the electric grid to accommodate more renewables as well as developing new forest products that help us use energy more efficiently, including wood fiber insulation and cross-laminated timber.

It will take work to develop the right policies to take full advantage of the opportunity.

Job creation will need to be at the center of clean energy policies, and we will need to make commitments in education and workforce development to make sure that there are people ready to fill the new jobs. Lawmakers will also have make sure that lower-income households have the ability to weatherize their homes and modernize their systems.

And it will take action on the federal level to fund public infrastructure improvements — including rural broadband internet service — that will make it possible to attract private investment to all parts of the state.

If we are going to make a serious attempt to slow climate change, we need to act quickly, and under the Mills administration, Maine has set aggressive climate goals of decreasing emissions by 50% in the next 10 years and zero net emissions in 2050.

When the Maine Aqua Ventus project opens its supply chain portal this week, it will be moving from a hypothetical notion to a real actor in the state’s economy. But it’s not the only clean-energy job-creation opportunity in Maine.

Our economic future is tied to the clean-energy transition, and it’s incumbent on us all to make sure we get it right.

Reprinted from The Portland Press Herald.

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