How Washington County Can Save Maine


illustrations/Pat Corrigan
illustrations/Pat Corrigan

Washington County can save Maine.

I know that sounds counterintuitive. How could rural, eastern Maine, where poverty and despair prevail, be the state’s savior? 

Easy. This section of the state, north of Ellsworth along the coast until you reach Canada, is primed to be exploited. That’s right — exploited. But in a good, eco-friendly way.

For the past five years I’ve lived all the way Down East, in Eastport, and I’ve learned this: land is cheap, natural resources are plentiful, and the hard-working locals are so tired of just barely getting by that they’re eager to embrace any new opportunity.  

With its strong and dependable tides and wind that blows hard almost every day, coastal Washington County has enough kinetic energy to power itself and then some. The size of Rhode Island and Delaware combined, but home to less than 35,000 people, it’s an ideal place to develop and test, on a grand scale, the latest renewable energy innovations, then manufacture the equipment and ship it off to paying customers around the globe. 

Maine could be the Silicon Valley of the green energy industry, and her people would be rich, rich, rich.

Granted, before we can reap this bounty, we’ll need radical action and bold leadership from a sector of society not known for either: the government. I’m talking massive infrastructure investment, especially in rail, and megabucks for R&D. (We’ll also need to get a few federal laws changed, but more on that later.)

Success won’t happen overnight — nothing does Down East. But if we play our cards right, we’ll win big.

Luckily, visionaries across the state and around the world are recognizing Maine’s potential to be a major player in the Brave New Green World. The ball is already rolling. 

Last month, the Energy Ocean Conference drew a group of hundreds of scientists, engineers, suits and politicians to Rockport for serious discussion of wind and tidal projects in Maine. It looks like at least $20 million of federal stimulus cash is headed to the University of Maine to finance the study and development of large-scale offshore wind platforms. And several major renewable energy projects are already being planned for Washington County.  

Here’s my idea: build a hydro-powered industrial corridor in the county where companies can create and construct the gears of the burgeoning green energy economy.  

We’ll lure businesses Down East using a time-honored stimulus tool: bribery. Washington County is already a Pine Tree Development Zone where start-ups can get away with paying virtually no state taxes for up to 10 years. Let’s sweeten the deal. Provide them with free or incredibly low-priced power in exchange for a guaranteed number of good jobs. With cheap energy, cheap real estate, a big tax break and easy access to a deepwater port and rail lines, Washington County gets a lot more attractive to investors.

Of course, we can’t be dependent on a single industry. Maine learned that lesson with fish, shoes, chickens, shipbuilding, paper, wood products and telephone call centers. And not everyone wants to work in the energy sector. 

Washington County can raise the fortunes of those Mainers, too. The executives and managers of all the new companies Down East will need the services of bankers, brokers, accountants, architects, Web designers, prostitutes, lawyers and other professionals in the sinful southern half of the state. And who’s gonna feed and entertain these people and get ’em drunk when they come to the big city? Portlanders, that’s who. 

But wait, that’s not the half of it. 

There’s a plant that grows like a weed Down East with the potential to birth all manner of additional industries that are both highly profitable and eco-friendly, a magical plant capable of linking the sectors of manufacturing, farming, tourism, and the creative economy for everyone’s benefit. 

Hint: it ain’t potatoes, blueberries or spruce.

I’ll tell you about it in a minute, but first let’s talk about juice.


We’ll be dammed

We don’t have to reinvent the water-wheel, just improve it. 

People have long dreamed of harnessing the power of the Down East tides, particularly those in Passamaquoddy Bay and Cobscook Bay. In the 1930s, Franklin Roosevelt (who vacationed at his “cottage” on nearby Campobello Island) championed a big government-backed tidal dam project there, but its planners were unable to overcome Congress and other obstacles, and the project died. Thirty years later, John F. Kennedy showed interest in a similar dam, and many others have marveled at the possibilities since, but no one has succeeded yet.

The Ocean Renewable Power Company may become the exception. The Delaware-based company with a research facility in Eastport is working on an underwater turbine with tremendous potential to generate power from ocean currents, tides and rivers. The Eastport prototype is expected to generate a reliable supply of power within the year. 

This is a good example of how a public-private partnership can work. The company has received a lot of taxpayer money, most recently $800,000 from the Maine Technology Asset Fund last month. They plan to create about 20 jobs in Maine in the near future, and though that may not seem like a lot, it is in Eastport.

Dr. Normand Laberge of Tidewalker Associates has been working on a different model of tidal power. During the energy crisis of the 1970s, Laberge designed a tidal dam project for the Passamaquoddy tribe, but it fizzled in part due to Reagan-era rollbacks of incentives to develop renewable energy. The Half-Moon Cove Dam was never built. 

Now Laberge is trying to revive the project. Tidewalker claims the dam has the potential to generate up to 16 megawatts of dependable, affordable electricity, enough to satisfy the annual needs of 10,000 residential power customers. Laberge is still fishing for investors, so perhaps a deal could be struck: the state pays for the dam and, in return, the electricity it generates is used to power the green-industrial business corridor I’m proposing. 

Naysayers love to point out the weaknesses of tidal and other alternative energy sources. The “charm” of the
fossil-fueled grid is its ever-present baseline of power. Humans and industry in the developed world expect and demand a constant stream of (allegedly) unlimited juice. 

It’s true that renewables like hydro, wind and solar have lull periods, but that’s today’s issue, not tomorrow’s. With enough money and brains, we can engineer our way around such roadblocks. And why not shift manufacturing back to a schedule by which periods of high power usage coincide with periods of peak power production? That’s how tidal mills worked for generations and how solar-powered businesses are learning to operate.

The green energy revolution is just beginning and we can get in, cheap. Compared to the total cost of exploration, production, shipping, pollution and clean-up of the fossil fuel era, real cheap — Washington County cheap. 

In mid-June, I watched a parade of 110-foot-long windmill blades make their way off the island of Eastport via Route 190. I don’t know where the blades were headed, but I know where they were from: Brazil.

When news broke this spring that wind turbines were gonna come through the Port of Eastport, everyone Down East was excited, especially because the port’s sole remaining client, the Domtar pulp mill in Baileyville, had suspended operations. But I couldn’t get it out of my head: Brazil!

We need to build windmill blades and underwater turbines and solar panels and batteries right here. Hell, Maine’s industrial heritage is manufacturing! To be a mere port of entry is to be nothing but a toll booth collecting a quick, tiny dime. 

Washington County’s green industrial complex doesn’t need to be built from scratch. The three elements necessary for it to take root and grow — infrastructure, an educated workforce, and political wheel-greasing — are already either in place or at hand. 

The Port of Eastport is a natural deepwater berth that, unlike Portland Harbor, never needs dredging. With the anticipated addition of a bulk conveyor system — part of the state transportation bond on this fall’s ballot — companies could ship anything, anywhere. Plus, there’s a bunch of skilled longshoremen already down there just itching to get back to work.   

The Boat School, located in Eastport and run by Husson University, has a beautiful, spacious campus that could be expanded to include the teaching of skills useful to the renewable energy industry. (Teaching composites or turbine building or solar-power technology isn’t much of a leap from teaching fiberglass boat-building and marine electronics.) 

As for real estate, this is the last part of coastal Maine with plenty of cheap land. Don’t be fooled, though, by what people call the “unspoiled” coast. While parts may appear wild, this section of Down East ain’t virgin. The remains of abandoned sardine factories, shipyards and other manufacturing sites dot the shoreline, and many are ripe for redevelopment as green industrial parks.

Back in the old days, Maine towns and cities routinely experienced Great Fires that cleared out structures built to the old (highly flammable) standards and made way for modern construction. In downtown Eastport, about a quarter of the business district has been renovated, but the rest of the buildings can barely stand. Restoring these properties is cost-prohibitive for anyone except the extremely rich and foolish. Eastport and many other Maine cities need a Great Green Fire to purge crumbling, energy-inefficient structures and make way for the future.  

Goodbye, Eastport. Hello, Energyport! Let’s build an efficient, off-the-grid city, a demonstration model of sorts showcasing the latest green materials and technologies. Imagine a downtown of three-story buildings, with shops on the ground floor and a mix of offices and residences upstairs, all well insulated, warmed by the sun and electrified by the bay’s tidal surges and the sea breeze that kicks up after the tide turns in the afternoon. Not only would Energyport be a cool place to live, but eco-tourists would visit and spend money — at least to feed the solar-powered parking meters.

The most valuable asset the Down East region has to offer is its people, many of whom are remarkably resilient and creative — gotta be, since this neck of the woods is as hardscrabble as Maine gets. Because it’s a tough place, the kids with dreams and talents flee as soon as they can, replaced by retirees who want water views but can’t afford Bar Harbor or Boothbay.

It doesn’t have to be this way. On dozens, if not hundreds of occasions, I’ve heard expats and visitors say, “If only there were jobs, I’d move Down East in an instant.” These are smart people with young families, eager to live responsibly and work in a place powered by sustainable energy.

This is where Washington County’s secret weapons come in: the politicos. Both Kevin Raye, the Republican minority leader of the Maine Senate, and Washington County Commissioner Chris Gardner, who also happens to be Eastport’s Port Director, have strong ties to the other Washington. Raye, who lives in Perry and operates a mustard mill in Eastport, worked for Sen. Olympia Snowe for many years. Gardner and Sen. Susan Collins are close pals. And both of Maine’s senators buttered up big-time to President Obama earlier this year by breaking party rank and supporting the president’s economic stimulus package.

It’s time to call in a favor and get some of the $1.3 billion in federal transportation stimulus cash on the table. Money for rail projects won’t be doled out until next year, so Maine still has time to elbow its way to the front of the line.  

Rail is the safest, most efficient and dependable way to move products and people across the state and beyond. The price tag for a trans-state rail initiative may seem high — $250 million, maybe even twice that — but it’s worth it to reconnect Maine’s counties economically and otherwise. 

I recently took a late-night ride down Route 9 (a.k.a. the Airline) from Calais to Bangor. The truck traffic was ridiculous, especially considering all the diesel-guzzling hills and the deadly moose and deer. Rail is essential if Washington County is gonna lead Maine in the green revolution. Can’t be shipping monster turbines on a dangerous two-lane highway.


We already legalized it

Now, about this plant…

Did you know a law legalizing production of industrial hemp was passed by the Maine Legislature and signed into law by Governor John Baldacci on June 9? 

Don’t be surprised if you didn’t. Though the Legislature’s agriculture committee held a public hearing on the bill and it passed by a vote of 25 to 10 in the Senate, this important piece of legislation didn’t get any media coverage. 

That could be because the bill’s proponents decided not to issue any press releases. They didn’t want industrial hemp’s usual opponents — namely, law enforcement and the anti-drug nuts — coming to Augusta and causing a scene.

I’m putting the following in all caps because I want the knuckleheads out there to get the message through their thick skulls: INDUSTRIAL HEMP IS NOT A DRUG. 

You can’t get high smoking hemp. In fact, according to scientific research, you’d have to smoke one joint per minute for 15 minutes to feel even vaguely stoned. And in addition to the ill effects of smoke inhalation, you’d likely be spending all your groovy time in the bathroom because industrial hemp is so fibrous it acts like a supernatural laxative when smoked.

Advocates of industrial hemp hate it when people claim the plant is gonna save the world. Such thinking, they say, sets expectations too high. But I think they’re setting the bar too low.

A diverse array of industries can grow from the cultivation and processing of this magic plant. The most obvious is agriculture. Industrial hemp (which, by the way, is not a drug) is an excellent, and fairly easy, crop for Maine farmers to raise. And given Maine’s history of textile manufacturing, establishment of a hemp fabric industry would provide a strong incentive to retrofit and restore mills in Lewiston/Auburn, Biddeford-Saco, and other communities around the state. Government assistance for hemp start-ups would be helpful and warranted, as Eastern European countries subsidize their hemp-cloth industries, which ship the finished product to America.

In addition to abandoned textile mills, Maine’s moribund paper and forest products sectors stand to be revitalized by industrial hemp. Hemp is a helpful ingredient in paper recycling and can be combined with wood to make fiberboard for use in building construction. Mix hemp with Maine lime and you have hempcrete, a green alternative to concrete. Industrial hemp can also be burned in pellet stoves.

Hemp seed, hemp nut, hemp oil and seed cake can feed animals and humans alike. Check the shelves of your local health food store and you’ll find breads, snacks, milks and cereals all derived from hemp. The list of hemp products goes on and on — bio-fuel, rolling papers, Bible pages, paints, varnishes, lubricants — with new products popping up all the time. 

There’s just one little problem: the state law doesn’t supersede the federal law prohibiting hemp cultivation, so despite the governor’s signature, Maine farmers still can’t plant the crop. In Washington D.C., Representatives Barney Frank and Ron Paul (talk about strange bedfellows) have co-sponsored a bill to allow farmers to grow industrial hemp, but it’s not even getting a committee hearing. Here’s another chance for Senators Snowe and Collins to earn their paychecks.

Opposition to industrial hemp is mind-boggling. Over 30 developed nations have embraced the wonder crop, but here, in the land of the free, we can’t grow a single seed. General Barry McCaffrey, the former U.S. Drug Czar, best illustrates the ludicrousness of the situation. He’s been quoted defending his opposition to industrial hemp’s legalization on grounds that doing so would send a bad message to children.

Uh, General, excuse me, but, YOU CAN’T GET HIGH OFF THE SHIT!

Legalize it

While we’re on the subject of plants in the genus Cannabis, we should talk about another one that grows well Down East. It’s called marijuana. 

This fall’s vote to (hopefully) legalize the distribution of medical marijuana is a good step, but it doesn’t go far enough. Let’s be rational about the issue and look at the facts: booze and legalized gambling have both ruined far more lives than grass ever has or could. We should legalize the weed and market it to tourists.

Marijuana tourism has been a huge boon to Vancouver and Amsterdam, and it could help Maine compete for today’s sparse vacation dollars while simultaneously filling our tax coffers and creating more agricultural jobs. 

Thousands of the people coming to Maine for kayaking, hunting, fishing, camping and bird-watching are stoners. Those folks smuggle their own stash across state lines because they don’t know where to score a bag during their trip. (Plus, many of them are smoking Mexican weed, which has a bigger carbon footprint than beef cattle.) These visitors should be enjoying organically grown, local herb instead, and paying a tax on it similar to the recently increased meals and lodging levy. 

 The state could also generate revenue by selling licenses that allow residents to grow up to six plants for personal use. The number of commercial-growing licenses should be restricted and granted exclusively to veterans and indians as a way to say “thank you” to the vets and “sorry ’bout all the oppression” to the Native Americans.

Marijuana is not killing anyone. In Maine, more people die of addictions to fried dough and cigarettes than bong hits. It’s time we realize how silly and wasteful our marijuana policy has been, and how lucrative it can be to reverse it. (Again, some help at the federal level will be key.) 

 If Maine needs someone to oversee its recreational marijuana industry, I’d be happy to accept a gubernatorial appointment to the position. Of all the new jobs created in connection to the green economy, that’s the only one I’m qualified to hold. 


Bollard columnist Crash Barry has left Washington County. He’s spending the summer in Cabin 11, nestled in the woods of the western Maine hippie belt.

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