ORONO – Maine’s ambition to become a national leader in developing a deepwater wind energy industry got a boost Monday when U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu toured the University of Maine’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center.

Chu’s visit added momentum to the state’s efforts, which supporters say could create thousands of jobs and a new manufacturing sector over time.

It gave the country’s top energy official a firsthand look at the research that’s under way at the center, and introduced him to some of the Maine-based businesses that are involved in the work.

And it reinforced a message that the state’s top political leaders have been repeating in Washington, D.C.: Maine has the resources and expertise to develop technologies that can generate vast amounts of power for the Northeast from wind turbines floating far off the coast.

The technology has yet to be proven, and success will depend on factors including long-term government policies and billions of dollars in private investment.

But Chu’s visit, made at the request of Maine’s U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, underscores that Maine is on the federal government’s radar screen at a time when clean energy is gaining a renewed focus.

After his tour, Chu said the work at the center is “truly impressive” and points to Maine’s leadership in helping to develop a sustainable global economy.

The energy secretary has set a goal of producing 20 percent of the nation’s electricity from wind power by 2030, with much of it expected to come from deepwater wind farms.

His agency has already funneled $12.1 million to the center for design and testing of the country’s first floating wind turbine, which is expected to operate for four months in 2012 in the waters off Monhegan.

Spending approved this month by Maine voters will complement the energy department’s funds and help leverage an additional $12.4 million in federal money to build the nation’s first laboratory for manufacturing and testing of blades, towers and other deepwater wind turbine components.

Chu saw the beginnings of that project, which is being built next to the composites center and is set for completion in 2011.

The state and the university are preparing to seek bids in September to build the world’s first floating wind farm, in federal waters off the Maine coast.

More than two dozen companies and institutions, working under the banner of the DeepCwind consortium, are involved in Maine’s efforts. Several of those members discussed their businesses and display materials Monday. They included executives from Cianbro Corp., James W. Sewall Co. and Hodgdon Marine Group.

Chu was accompanied by most of the state’s congressional delegation, as well as Gov. John Baldacci. The tour was led by Habib Dagher, the center’s director and the state’s chief promoter of offshore wind power.

Using maps, charts, images and materials from the testing center, Dagher and his team made a case for why Maine is well positioned to develop the new industry.

The media was permitted to follow along, but the tour was more than a photo opportunity. Chu, who earned a Nobel Prize in physics in 2007, engaged Dagher in detailed questions about the technology.

In a brief news conference after the tour, Chu said the gushing oil in the Gulf of Mexico is a reminder that the United States needs a comprehensive energy strategy in the coming decades.

His comments reflected those made later in the day by his boss, President Obama, who called for a push for clean energy while touring sites of the oil spill.

 

Staff Writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at: [email protected]