August 16, 2010
LEWISTON — Maine's effort to become a world leader in deep-water, offshore wind power took one of its bigger steps forward in July.
A University of Maine task force is in the process of reviewing pre-qualification questionnaires from 11 engineering and design firms from around the world.
By the end of the summer, one or two will be chosen to pit their designs and working prototypes of scaled-down windmills against each other in a series of tests meant to weed out the weaker designs and advance the ones that work well, said Habib Dagher, director of the AWEC Advanced Composites Center at the University of Maine.
The competitors will get the opportunity to design and engineer what may be the first deep-water, offshore wind turbine system in the country.
Dagher's center at Orono is at the heart of a research and development effort that wind-energy experts in Maine and beyond believe is unmatched.
The center has recently gained the financial support of the federal government, earning upward of $30 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Energy, aimed at ensuring more of America's energy needs come from renewable sources in the future.
A 35-member consortium of private companies, university researchers and government experts known as DeepC Wind, will share information and collaborate with the design team.
"Our goal is to identify the most promising technology for Maine and to improve on it with our partners' expertise," Dagher said.
Scaled prototypes go from small to big
The design process beginning this summer will eventually lead to a pilot project of floating wind turbines tethered in water at least 200 feet deep and between 20 and 50 miles offshore in the Gulf of Maine's blustery waters. Engineers will work from three basic concepts for designing the platforms that will hold the towers and power-generating turbines with the signature spinning blades. Those platforms will either float on the surface of the sea anchored to the sea bed, be partially submerged in the sea utilizing a tethering system and water-filled ballast chambers, or be submerged below the surface and tethered. By mid-winter 2011, working models of windmills between 10 and 13 feet tall will be tested at a lab with 50-foot-deep tanks of water. Wind will be generated by a special system designed and built by university researchers. The idea is to replicate wind and wave conditions at sea to help tune in computer models used in designing full-scale turbines.
The next major steps would come in 2012 when one-third-sized floating platforms with turbines on top are to be tested in a real-world setting off Monhegan Island, a state-approved, short-term test area. Those windmills would be 120 feet above the ocean's surface. The full-scale, 5-megawatt turbines that would be installed in the final pilot project would be 300 feet tall.
15,000 new jobs
The ultimate goal? A $20 billion offshore wind energy industry in Maine, which state officials are hoping would create upward of 15,000 jobs and a new manufacturing base. The state would ship deep-water wind energy components or related products such as specialized watercraft for building and maintaining offshore wind farms around the globe for decades into the future.
As other states and countries push to cut their fossil-fuel consumption, limit greenhouse gas emissions and tap new sources of renewable power, Maine hopes to establish its role as a deep-water, offshore wind-energy technology research and development hub, Dagher said.
While dozens of other offshore projects are proposed along the East Coast, Maine is the only state seeking to go far from shore and into the deepest water.
Close to one of the most power-hungry parts of the country and a market of more than 55 million people, bringing electricity from the Gulf of Maine even 20 miles offshore is just as feasible as getting that juice all the way from the Midwest, Dagher said.
Going that far offshore has several benefits: the massive turbine structures would be beyond the view of anybody onshore and the wind further out to sea is more consistent and also without the kinds of turbulence found on land, said Jen Banks, an offshore siting specialist with the Washington, D.C.-based American Wind Energy Association.
The cost of transmitting the power back to shore is a negative, but because the wind is more consistently stronger, turbines can be bigger and will more regularly produce power, making the payback on the investment to build them faster.
Experts also agree the wind resource in the Gulf of Maine is one of the best in the world and possibly the best in the Western Hemisphere.
"It has high winds, high waves and some of the strongest tidal currents you can find anywhere in the United States," Neal Pettigrew, a professor of oceanography at the University of Maine in Orono, said in a state-produced video on Maine's wind and tidal energy resources. "Everything that generates energy in the ocean kind of comes up in spades."
Who will be first?
Banks said it would be hard to guess who would be first in the water in the U.S. with an offshore project, and that projects set for state-controlled waters are likely to have a better chance than those in federal waters.
Under the current process, it takes an average of seven and a half years to permit an offshore project in federal waters.
Laws recently passed in Maine approved a test and research area in state waters about 3 miles off the southern shore of Monhegan Island. There, windmills can be floated, tethered to the sea bed for up to five months for research purposes, Dagher said.
A project off Cape Cod in Nantucket Sound, known as Cape Wind, has been tied up in a controversial federal permitting process for nearly a decade and has cost the would-be developer an estimated $10 million.
The project was finally approved by the U.S. Energy Department in April but remains tied up in the courts on appeals of local groups concerned about the environmental impact of the project.
Other offshore projects, all in shallow water — less than 60 feet deep — are slated for Rhode Island, Delaware, New Jersey and North Carolina, among others.
"Maine has the lead in deep-water, offshore wind in the United States, there's no question about that," said Bob West, managing director of the Rockland-based Ocean Energy Institute.
The institute, a member of the DeepC Wind Consortium, is a think-tank-like entity that aims to help reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil, provide venture capital for ocean-based energy developments and bolster ocean energy education.
West thinks Maine, based on its research and development plan and its pace so far, will likely have the first deep-water turbine.
Out of sight, out of mind?
Developing deep-water technology also solves siting issues, because being able to place turbines over the horizon and out of sight of shore could alleviate many of the visual-impact concerns that have made siting other offshore projects problematic.
Further offshore also means less chance of conflict with shipping lanes, ground-fishing and lobstering, West said.
Attempts to put offshore wind farms in place in some of the Great Lakes are wrestling with visual-impact controversies, as well.
"There's a lot of push-back because nobody wants to look at them," West said. "I'm thinking what we are doing in Maine could have great applications."
The composites expertise developed in Maine will be a major factor as builders look to make light, strong and durable wind tower, blade and turbine components that will hold up in an offshore marine environment, West said.
Pushing the U.S. ahead
Only the country of Norway has the only full-scale, deep-water prototype in operation. That turbine, developed by StatOil, the country's national energy company, has been operating since the fall of 2009. Another scaled prototype is in testing off the coast of Italy.
"But Maine still will probably have the lead in the U.S. in having the first one in the water, in at least prototype phase," West said.
The state's efforts and focus on deep-water, offshore wind have helped it win the notice of the U.S. Department of Energy and win federal funding for research and development.
Dagher said the strength of Maine's collaborative effort has put it at the head of the pack in the eyes of the federal government.
Now he hopes the state will attract the strongest engineers and eventually the developers and investors who will make the state's goal of producing 5,000 megawatts — the equivalent of three nuclear power plants — of offshore wind energy by 2030 a reality.
"We had a better team and a better plan and we are going to get the U.S. ahead of the world on this technology," Dagher said.