Maine pilot project receives $3.7 million award, reviving vision for offshore wind farm

Source: BY TUX TURKEL, Portland Press Herald • Posted: Wednesday, November 18, 2015

An experimental offshore wind turbine being developed by a University of Maine-led consortium has won a $3.7 million federal award, Maine’s two U.S. senators will announce Monday, reviving ambitions that the state could be the home of a floating, deep-water wind farm and a new clean-energy industry.

Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King learned last week that the Department of Energy is committing the additional money to the Maine Aqua Ventus project.

Maine Aqua Ventus had been competing with demonstration projects in other states for a $47 million grant, but was passed over last year in favor of ventures in New Jersey, Virginia and Oregon. Instead, Maine got $3 million to continue engineering and design work.

Since then, each of the three winners has been unable to secure a power purchase agreement, and each has had trouble with cost and/or regulatory issues. Last week, the Energy Department told King and Collins that those projects would receive extensions until May, while Aqua Ventus would get $3.7 million to help overcome remaining barriers to successful development of a pilot wind farm off Monhegan.

“This extraordinary investment,” Collins and King said in a written statement, “is proof that the DOE recognizes what we have long known: That the Gulf of Maine is a tremendous resource for wind energy that could provide an affordable source of renewable energy directly to the country’s population centers on the East Coast, while creating thousands of new jobs in Maine and diversifying the state’s electricity supply.”

The award comes at a pivotal time. In 2011, the Norwegian energy giant Statoilproposed an experimental, $120 million floating wind farm off Boothbay Harbor. But the company left Maine after a political maneuver by Gov. Paul LePage in 2013, and is instead building the demonstration project in Scotland.

Statoil’s exit, and performance questions about Maine Aqua Ventus, dashed dreams of developing a multibillion-dollar wind power industry off the Maine coast. In the meantime, other states and countries have been eclipsing Maine as research and development centers for the evolving technology, frustrating businesses that had hoped to supply goods and services.

In elevating the status of Maine Aqua Ventus, the Energy Department’s action may put Maine back in the game.

“The goals of the program will help springboard our nascent offshore wind industry in the United States from a promise into a concrete reality,” David Danielson, assistant secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, wrote to King. “These early engineering, design and demonstration projects will help pave the way for future cost reductions and catalyze significant private-sector investment.”

Europe has hundreds of offshore wind turbines, mostly in shallow water on steel towers buried in the seabed. The Department of Energy is seeking new designs to radically cut the cost of wind energy. One hope is turbines that float far offshore, where the wind is stronger and steadier and where people can’t see or hear them. Maine’s deep coastal waters are a perfect place to test this, and until the setbacks with Statoil and UMaine, they had attracted interest from global energy companies.

Maine Aqua Ventus is being developed by a for-profit spinoff that represents UMaine, Cianbro Corp. and Emera Inc. of Nova Scotia. In 2013, the partners launched a one-eighth-scale model of a floating turbine off Castine. The unit is made of advanced composite materials that fight corrosion and reduce weight. Its hull is made of concrete, which can be produced in Maine and has a longer life span in the ocean than steel.

The Aqua Ventus prototype, called Volturn US, generated a small amount of power and endured extreme sea and wind conditions during its testing. The goal is to use the knowledge to develop a full-size pilot wind farm in deep water off Monhegan Island. It would consist of two turbines, each with a capacity of six megawatts. Based on the availability of wind, the project could generate 43,000 megawatt-hours a year, enough to power 6,000 average homes.

The project won a 20-year power-purchase agreement from the Maine Public Utilities Commission. An average Central Maine Power Co. home customer would pay an additional 73 cents a month, or $8.70 in the first year.

“We continue to make significant progress by demonstrating the technical and cost reduction advantages of the Volturn US floating concrete offshore wind technology,” said Habib Dagher, director of UMaine’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center and the project’s lead researcher. “Our team is busy putting the final touches on the design of the six-megawatt hulls for the 12-megawatt demonstration project. The additional funding will help us complete all aspects of the project planning, negotiate supply contracts with industrial partners, and approach financial close for the project.”

All projects will have until May 1 to meet additional milestones, King and Collins said. Decisions about which projects to advance will be made by the Energy Department on May 31.