April 9, 2013

Offshore wind enters deeper Maine testing

Two multimillion-dollar projects off the Maine coast begin new phases in a fledgling industry that is already aiding the economy.

By Tux Turkel tturkel@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 1)

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A team from the University of Maine at Orono tests a turbine outside their laboratory recently. They plan to place the floating turbine in the ocean off the coast of Castine in May.

Photos courtesy of Habib Dagher / University of Maine

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To comply with state and federal regulations, Statoil has been conducting studies that include assessing the potential impact on birds and marine life. It's now mapping the ocean bottom at the test site and studying impacts on boat traffic. It has hired a Boothbay fisherman, Larry Knapp, to serve as a liaison between the company and the fishing community.

Statoil also is preparing to line up companies that can fabricate the turbine's substructure, install the transmission line and provide vessels, among other things.

Four months ago, Statoil won a crucial power contract from the Maine Public Utilities Commission, which will add 75 cents a month to an average CMP residential bill. Under the agreement, Statoil pledged to locate its project operations center in Maine and make efforts to award at least 10 percent of capital spending, totaling $100 million, to qualified Maine suppliers and contractors.

Even at the earliest stages, the Statoil and UMaine projects are providing opportunities for Maine businesses, said Paul Williamson, director of the Maine Wind & Ocean Energy Initiative.

Williamson said companies that have developed expertise in land-based wind energy projects in Maine over the past few years are finding work now in other states and countries. His survey found that Maine companies are finding 41 percent of their work outside the state. He expects the trend to follow the same course if Maine companies can get experience in offshore wind power.

But LePage and Mark Vannoy, the one PUC commissioner who voted against the agreement, expressed the view that higher electricity rates discourage business investment in Maine, which already suffers from rates above the national average. The criticism was compounded by Statoil's acknowledgement that it will be difficult to proceed with the project unless it wins the follow-up, $50 million federal grant.

Kristin Aamodt, the Hywind Maine project manager, said it's too early to speculate about what the company will do if does not get the federal money. She said the demonstration project won't be profitable for Statoil; it's a first step in developing a wind park off the Maine coast with as many as 100 floating turbines.

"This is a strategic project for us," she said.

Aamodt didn't respond directly to LePage's comments, but said ratepayers will benefit in the long run, if the technology is proven. The goal is to generate power at 10 to 15 cents per kilowatt hour, she said.

"The important thing is, we have a road map for competitive prices in a large park," she said.

The Aqua Ventus project is shooting for 14 cents per kilowatt hour at the full-scale site off Monhegan in 2016. It is striving for 10 cents per kilowatt hour in 2020, Dagher said. By comparison, customers now pay roughly 7 cents per kilowatt hour.

The testing over the next six months will bring researchers closer to knowing whether those rates will be achievable, Dagher said. He said the overall goal of developing offshore wind energy in Maine is to create a new industry, not burden residents with higher rates. Advocates say a deep-water wind-power industry someday could create thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in investment.

"Steve Jobs didn't discover an iPhone in his back pocket," Dagher said. "There was a lot of research and development."

Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at:

tturkel@pressherald.com 

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