Maine is leading the nation in ocean-energy technology

Maine's offshore floating wind farm moves forward

BY RAMONA DU HOUX

August 31st, 2011 

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UMaine students working on an offshore floating wind turbine design. photo by Bill Drake

“We are leading the world in offshore floating wind-turbine technology,” said Dr. Habib Dagher, the director of the University of Maine’s Advanced Structures & Composites Center during the EnergyOcean International Conference held in Portland last June.

Over 400 people from around the world attended the conference to network and to keep up to date with the latest ocean energy technologies, regulations, and supply chains.

“The conference highlights Maine to the international community at the same time everyone here shares information and ideas, so we can put those developments into our plans,” said Paul Williamson, head of Maine Wind Industry Initiative and member of the DeepCwind Consortium. “It’s particularly interesting for me to see developments in tidal energy from a company in France and how they are applying their experiences to Nova Scotia. It’s happening in concert with Maine’s Ocean Renewable Power Company’s tidal-energy plans. It’s valuable to us to see how they are implementing a supply chain, so we can learn from their experience.”

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The three wind turbine designs UMaine created and tested

After the three-day conference, companies and potential investors left, knowing the details of Maine’s ocean-energy plans, as well as realizing the expertise the state has developed in this field over the last five years.

Because of UMaine’s research, the greatest potential for the manufacturing of these technologies is here, with Maine companies. Maine companies have gained expertise in erecting wind turbines, and UMaine’s researchers have earned a reputation for creating new turbine designs using cutting-edge composite technology. Once these technologies take hold, workers and researchers with experience in building and installing these turbines will be in demand around the world, as well as the turbines produced in Maine. UMaine will become the center for expertise in this field, with Dr. Dagher heading up the ongoing research.

Along with floating offshore wind turbines, Maine has developed unique tidal-energy turbines. Both were highlighted at the conference.

Maine’s floating-turbine offshore wind potential —

“There is an important distinction between ‘first in the water’ and ‘best in the water,’” said Dr. Christopher Hart, the U.S. offshore wind manager for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Wind and Water Power Program. During his keynote address at the conference, he sited a project in Texas as being “first” and referred to Maine’s plans for floating offshore wind farms as potentially being the “best.”

“In Maine there is great potential,” said Hart. “There’s a tremendous amount of potential for the United States to take a leading role globally in what is a very promising technology.”

A day before the conference began, Hart saw firsthand the progress Dr. Dagher and his team, along with members of the DeepCwind Consortium, have made in Maine’s development of offshore wind.

Two miles south of Monhegan island is the chosen test site for the 180-foot tall prototype of the first deepwater wind turbine in U.S. waters. Hart visited the island, was shown environmental monitoring equipment, went to Bath Iron Works (BIW), where the turbine will be assembled, and toured UMaine’s laboratory, where the prototype design will be finalized. He met with scientists as well as businesses like Cianbro, the company that will manufacture the prototype.

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UMaine students working on an offshore floating wind turbine design. photo Bill Drake

“I’m impressed with Maine’s offshore wind plans and the work to date,” said Hart.

The DOE has funded the prototype project with $7.7 million in Recovery Act grants, and with an additional $5 million in congressional funds. Maine Technology Institute also gave seed grants to UMaine for ocean-energy technology development.

Next August the turbine will be deployed off Monhegan’s shores, and Dagher’s team will be studying how it reacts to every condition Mother Nature can muster. They will also analyze how the prototype turbine affects the environment. This nonpermanent prototype will be a 1:3 scale model, floating wind turbine.

“We have a strong coalition of the best minds and companies in the state, and beyond. We are all focused on putting the first floating wind turbine off the coast next year,” said Dagher. “It will be designed by the university with other partners and manufactured in pieces by Cianbro, in Brewer. The components will be taken to BIW, where it will be assembled in dry dock. Then the completed, assembled tower will be lifted and towed out to sea just off of Mohegan Island.”

This spring three of UMaine’s designs were tested at the Maritime Research Institute Netherlands, where a special tank was designed for the project.

“For one and a half months, sixteen hours a day, we tested 1:50 scale wind-turbine models built at the university. We took a 300-foot-high turbine and shrank it to 60 feet,” said Dagher.

A spar-buoy, a tension-leg-platform, and a semi-submersible floating-turbine model was tested as part of Phase 1 of the Maine Deepwater Offshore Wind Plan — which goal is to have a commercial, floating wind farm in the Gulf of Maine by 2030 generating 5,000 megawatts.

“We put them in a wave-wind basin to generate waves of different heights and frequencies. We generated a number of ‘perfect storms.’ We were able to replicate a lot of extreme operating conditions. All the designs did extremely well,” said Dagher. “We collected a lot of data, which we are using to better design future turbines. We will place the first floating wind turbine off the coast using the information we just collected.”

The cost savings generated from ocean floating wind turbines versus fixed turbines —

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UMaine students tested their designs in a lab for extreme weather conditions. Photo Bill Drake

Hart said that the DOE estimates cost savings of up to 70 percent could be realized in the fabrication and installation of offshore wind floating turbines versus shallow-water turbines, which are usually drilled into the ocean floor.

“Deepwater turbines can be built onshore and then floated out to their site, and then attached to an anchor system,” said Hart, basically describing UMaine’s approach with Dr. Dagher heading up the team. “The wind in deeper water is better. That alone could drop costs-to-product power by up to a third, as compared to shallow-water turbines.”

The United Sates has the potential to power the country four times over by using the wind resources that exist within 50 miles of the national coastline. Total U.S. power consumption is currently around 100,000 GW — researchers estimate that offshore wind offers the potential to produce a total of 400,000 GW. Maine has “unlimited offshore wind potential.”

With floating wind farms off Maine’s coast, the state could export the excess energy to the Boston market.

Ocean wind powered electricity will be a competitive alternative —

“It’s new technology. People don’t know what the costs are, because no one has built one yet,” said Dagher. “We know better than anyone else what the projected costs and expenses will be. The first project, the 25 megawatt turbine, will be expensive. That’s natural. It is the first one of its kind. Look at your laptop that you bought five years ago — you couldn’t find a good one for less than $2,000; now it’s only two to three hundred dollars. Any industry goes through this. You start first with limited production, tune up your systems, and then you start to ramp up and your costs go down.”

Dagher and his university team have put together the DeepCwind Consortium, which involves at least 35 companies and governmental agencies, all working towards the goal of being able to produce power using offshore floating wind turbines at the same cost or less than other sources of electricity, by 2020. The “levelized cost of energy” (LCOE) — the total energy costs of a system, including the energy costs of the supply chain of offshore wind — is currently estimated to be at 21 cents/kwh on average. A study released by UMaine earlier this year said it would be possible to generate grid-scale offshore wind power for 8 to 10 cents per kwh in 2020, on par with cost projections of other electricity sources.

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UMaine's new offshore wind research center- the only one of its kind in the world. photo by Bill Drake

“Our challenge is to be cost competitive — it’s the reason we are doing more research and development. Our number-one goal is all about watts per kilowatt-hour,” said Dagher.

Dagher pointed out that oil or coal are expensive, dangerous, polluting alternatives. Ocean winds are nonpolluting, and the floating turbines will be positioned beyond the horizon, so people on land won’t know they are there. By contrast, coal pollutes far and wide, and it destroys mountains. Oil money goes to unstable countries, creating instability in the U.S., as prices continue to go up. Relying on oil is a national security risk.

“Energy prices are going up; we live it everyday. We will be able to keep millions of dollars in Maine, generate the electricity from Maine resources, generate jobs in Maine, and keep our costs down — we all will win,” said Dagher.

The Baldacci administration enabled UMaine and the DeepCwind Consortium to rapidly progress ocean energy in the state with various laws, a stellar commitment, and working with the congressional delegation. At the conference, the director of the Office of Energy Independence and Security, Kenneth Fletcher, declared the new administration’s stance.

“The state is fully committed,” said Fletcher. “I think the real opportunity we see is through our research and development, manufacturing and assembly — we would like to have Maine become the preeminent leader, at least on the East Coast.”

Companies need consistency in energy policies in order to have the confidence to invest.

“Stability in our state policies is very critical. You don’t want to go and invest your money in quicksand. It’s great Maine is staying the course. We’ve had good meetings with Ken Fletcher. I’m looking forward to working with the administration,” said Dagher. “We need a national energy policy that’s going to be stable to attract investment. Industry wants stable polices. They need to know in the next five years, twenty-five years, what’s going to happen. Then they will invest big-time.”