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

Efforts to make Maine a global leader in offshore wind power are moving ahead this spring on two fronts: A small model of the country's first floating wind turbine will be installed off Castine, and testing will escalate for a pilot wind park off Boothbay Harbor.

click image to enlarge

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

click image to enlarge

Both projects were among seven nationally that won $4 million in federal grants last year to help develop utility-scale offshore wind technologies. They are competing for a follow-up award of as much as $50 million next year for commercial operation.

Some state officials, notably Gov. Paul LePage, have criticized the higher electricity rates that help support the early stages of offshore wind power. They say the added cost won't bring enough economic benefits to the state.

But representatives of the two Maine projects say they are working to develop commercial-scale wind parks that produce power at rates that are on par with land-based generators. And a trade group says a survey it conducted last fall showed that 49 Maine companies already had generated $337 million in revenue from planning and erecting wind- and ocean-energy projects.

In late May off Castine, a team led by the University of Maine will launch a $1 million model that is one-eighth the size of its planned Aqua Ventus floating turbine. The unit is made of advanced composites to fight corrosion and reduce weight. Its hub will stand 50 feet above its floating base, with a rotor that's 32 feet in diameter. It will be moored to the sea bottom in 70 feet of water.

The turbine will be connected to the power grid with underwater cables. Its output will be a tiny 20 kilowatts, enough to power four average homes. Two dozen sensors will collect data to help researchers predict what a full-size wind park will need to survive for years in the Gulf of Maine.

"This is a very sophisticated experiment," said Habib Dagher, the UMaine professor who heads the school's Offshore Wind Laboratory.

The unit will remain in sheltered waters off Castine through June, Dagher said, then be towed to a site south of Monhegan Island for two months of tests in the open ocean.

Data from the tests will help the university -- and business partners that include Cianbro, Bath Iron Works and Iberdrola, the parent company of Central Maine Power Co. -- develop a full-scale pilot wind farm off Monhegan by 2016. It will feature two floating turbines that stand 300 feet from the water to the turbine hub.

The wind farm will have a rated capacity of six megawatts and, based on the availability of wind, is expected to generate enough power for 6,000 homes. The total cost is $93 million, with half expected to come from the federal grant and half from business partners.

Also this spring, the Norwegian energy giant Statoil is entering the next phase of testing for its Hywind Maine project off Boothbay Harbor.

Statoil launched the world's first full-scale floating turbine in the North Sea in 2009. It's using data from the experiment to refine its $120 million project in Maine. Hywind Maine would have four, three-megawatt turbines on floating spar buoys that would be anchored to the seabed in 460 feet of water.

Power could be flowing to the electricity grid by 2016. Based on studies that show average wind speed of roughly 20 mph and enough wind to spin the turbines 40 percent of the time annually, the project could generate enough electricity for more than 6,000 homes, according to Statoil.

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 

Were you interviewed for this story? If so, please fill out our accuracy form

Send question/comment to the editors




Further Discussion

Here at PressHerald.com we value our readers and are committed to growing our community by encouraging you to add to the discussion. To ensure conscientious dialogue we have implemented a strict no-bullying policy. To participate, you must follow our Terms of Use.

Questions about the article? Add them below and we’ll try to answer them or do a follow-up post as soon as we can. Technical problems? Email them to us with an exact description of the problem. Make sure to include:
  • Type of computer or mobile device your are using
  • Exact operating system and browser you are viewing the site on (TIP: You can easily determine your operating system here.)