June 6, 2010

State point man on offshore wind clearly energized

The University of Maine professor envisions a new business sector that could transform the state.

By Tux Turkel tturkel@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

ORONO — Less than 24 hours after returning from a wind energy conference in Dallas, Habib Dagher was sitting in front of a video monitor here at the University of Maine.

click image to enlarge

Habib Dagher holds a sample composite blade at the Advanced Structures & Composites Center lab at the University of Maine in Orono.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

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Habib Dagher discusses his role as Maine’s wind-energy point man while working at the Advanced Structures and Composites Center lab at the University of Maine in Orono.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

Additional Photos Below

Looking back at him was a manager at Statoil, the global energy company in Oslo, Norway, that's a pioneer in offshore wind power.

Midway through the teleconference, Dagher left the room. Climbing the stairs -- two at a time -- he entered a meeting with the director of a British firm that makes composite molds for wind turbine blades.

This pace and sense of urgency is typical for Dagher, a professor and founding director of the university's Advanced Structures and Composites Center. He has become the state's point man for what some see as a once-in-a-generation opportunity -- creating a major new business sector around offshore wind energy.

Dagher offers this analogy: Developers came to Maine at the dawn of the 20th century to exploit the state's rivers and forests -- and its proximity to markets -- to build an industry around pulp and paper.

Now global companies are looking 20 miles offshore at Maine's steady breezes, and its closeness to Northeast cities, to develop an industry around floating wind power.

But power production is only the start, Dagher says. Maine could launch a new manufacturing sector to build and service the components of deepwater wind. That could lead to billions of dollars in investment and thousands of jobs. This evolution, Dagher believes, would be "transformational" for Maine.

If this vision has any chance of becoming real, the next several months will be pivotal for Dagher, the composites center and by extension, the state of Maine.

Voters on Tuesday will decide whether to approve an energy bond that would help fund the country's first offshore wind demonstration site, probably off Monhegan.

On June 14, U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu will come here to tour the composites center, which has received millions of federal dollars for a major expansion to test and manufacture offshore wind components.

In September, the state plans to send out bids to build the world's first floating, commercial wind farm off the Maine coast. That site has yet to be identified.

These events help explain why Dagher is spending so much face time with decision makers who are considering whether to invest in an offshore wind industry in Maine.

"There's an international race," he said. "If we can't pull it off here, these companies will do it somewhere else."

Dagher is an engineer, but he promotes offshore wind with the skills of a seasoned politician. He is engaging and persistent. He can communicate a grand vision in simple terms. He makes people feel special and important.

Dagher has won the confidence and admiration of some of the state's top business and political leaders.

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, who invited Secretary Chu to the university and has helped steer millions of dollars to the composites center, calls Dagher "a one-man economic development machine."

Some of the state's harshest critics of land-based wind power say they support what Dagher is trying to do offshore.

It's too soon to say whether deepwater wind energy will become a new industry in the United States, and whether Maine can gain a competitive advantage. But more than any single person, Dagher has helped put Maine in the game.

FEDS A POSSIBLE OBSTACLE

Video conferences between Maine and Norway have become weekly events, and they're an example of how the state is jockeying for position.

Statoil is testing the world's first full-sized floating wind turbine off Norway. Dagher and Gov. John Baldacci saw it last year on a trade mission. The company has a working agreement with the state, and Dagher is optimistic that Statoil will bid on Maine's pilot project.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

Habib Dagher, a founding director of the Advanced Structures and Composites Center at the University of Maine in Orono, easily hefts a composite tube used for bridge construction.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

  


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