February 22, 2011

Deepwater wind power given boost from report

The University of Maine study should give the state 'a major leg up' in attracting developers.

By Tux Turkel tturkel@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Giant wind turbine installations floating more than 10 miles off the Maine coast could be able to generate electricity at rates competitive with conventional sources in 2020, according to a report being released today by the University of Maine.

University researchers say it seems possible to hit a target of 8-10 cents a kilowatt hour for energy delivered to the grid, which is on par with current costs.

Building floating platforms on land and towing them to their deepwater locations will be much cheaper than erecting turbine towers on the sea floor, researchers say. Seabed turbines are common in Europe and are the preferred design for proposed wind farms in shallow waters off the East Coast of the United States.

These projections are part of an exhaustive study of the feasibility of offshore wind in Maine that's aimed at energy developers around the world. The $1 million study, paid for by the federal Department of Energy, is meant to answer many questions that developers will have about whether it makes sense to invest in the Gulf of Maine.

Some of those questions will be addressed today during an interactive webcast and informational meetings being held at the university's Orono campus.

The session comes two months before the deadline for developers to respond to a request for proposals from the Maine Public Utilities Commission for a landmark pilot project. This demonstration, with a total capacity of 25 megawatts, will be too small and experimental to produce market rate power, according to Habib Dagher, the UMaine professor overseeing the effort. But it will offer a chance for a developer to explore the potential of a commercial-scale project off the Maine coast around 2020.

Dagher and his associates are in touch with roughly four dozen companies around the world involved in offshore wind. The study, Dagher said, will save a prospective bidder years of research and millions of dollars. He is hopeful that the study's detailed data will entice at least a couple of qualified developers to consider Maine over other locations where the potential for deepwater wind energy is being considered. "This will give Maine a major leg up," he said.

Maine has created a phased-in approach to floating offshore wind. It is starting with a proposed test model off Monhegan Island in 2012, a 25-megawatt pilot by 2016, and a commercial-scale wind farm with a capacity of up to 1,000 megawatts by 2020. Additional wind farms are contemplated by 2030, leading to a $20 billion investment in the state and supporting industries to manufacture, install and service hundreds of units.

But this scenario depends on researchers being able to drive down the cost of producing power 20 miles offshore, and plugging the underwater cables into coastal substations that connect to the regional electric grid.

The study has found that to be possible, Dagher said. Making floating platforms in coastal dry docks and towing them offshore will cut the energy cost of deepwater wind enough to hit 8 to 10 cents/kwh.

That's still above today's depressed natural gas prices, but should be very attractive in 2020, Dagher said, when overall energy prices are likely to rise. Including rates for transmission and distribution, consumers would pay 13 to 16 cents/kwh, he estimated, which is on par with today's overall rates in Maine.

Beyond energy costs, the study focuses closely on hundreds of details that developers would need to know to win permit approvals for the demonstration project.

"It really is a comprehensive overview of all the environmental, geographic and permitting issues that a developer would want to consider before responding to the request for proposals," said Jeff Thaler, an attorney who represents the DeepCwind Consortium, a group of companies working on offshore wind.

The study represents four years of data collection on everything from where right whales migrate to what piers can handle heavy construction equipment. It identifies broad "areas of interest" at least 10 miles offshore -- one off the Wiscasset region and another off Vinalhaven. It pinpoints grid interconnections and lists facilities suitable for the needs of heavy industry, including those in Eastport, Searsport, Brewer and Bath.

Other states have put out similar requests for proposals and conducted resource assessments, Thaler said, but all have been focused on development on the Continental Shelf.

"What's unique about Maine's study is we're talking about deepwater," Thaler said.

Developer bids for the demonstration project are due at the PUC on May 1. So it will still be a while before Dagher knows what impact the study and today's presentations have on the process. "If we got two good proposals I would be satisfied," he said. "We only need one good developer."

Staff Writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at: tturkel@pressherald.com

 

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