Maine's PUC approves University of Maine's floating wind turbine contract

Approval of Maine Aqua Ventus 

By Ramona du Houx

In June, Governor Mills signed bill requiring PUC to approve key contract allowing innovative project to move forward

In November, 2019 the Maine Public Utilities Commission’s (PUC) approval of a contract for Maine Aqua Ventus, a first-of-its-kind floating offshore wind pilot project spearheaded by the Advanced Structures and Composites Center at the University of Maine.

“The PUC’s approval of this contract is a major milestone for our state’s clean energy future. Thanks to the innovative work of the University of Maine, Aqua Ventus is poised to become the first offshore wind project in the country to feature a floating platform, an advancement that cements our state’s leadership in offshore wind development and that puts Maine on the map for clean energy technology. With this key and long-overdue approval, this cutting-edge demonstration project is now on track to move forward and allow us to harness our own clean, renewable source of energy, create jobs, and strengthen our economy.”

While waves surged against the VolturnUS 1:8 offshore floating wind turbine’s base, the platform seemed unaffected as it continually righted itself, casually ridding out a strong gale. The video of the storm, starring the University of Maine’s patented design test model, clearly exhibited the resilience of the VolturnUS, while it was held in position by three marine mooring lines anchored to the seabed off Monhegan Island.

In June of 2013 this concrete floating platform made history when it became North America’s first floating offshore wind turbine — generating electricity to the grid. Standing 65-foot-tall it was impressive and one’s imagination was stretched thinking what it would look like at full scale, as it’s only 1:8 the size of an eventual turbine. One blade on a full-scale turbine would be about the size of a 747 jet. 

The VolturnUS eighteen-month trials exceeded the University’s expectations and positioned the school’s Advanced Structures and Composite Center in great standing to eventually receive another grant from the Department of Energy (DOE) worth $39.9 million. When these funds are matched New England Aqua Ventus I, UMaine’s next offshore wind pilot demonstration project, will deploy two 6 MW turbines on VolturnUS semi-submersible hulls off Monhegan Island for more vigorous tests.

Emera Inc., Cianbro Corporation, and the University of Maine constructed the VolturnUS and are eager to build Aqua Ventus I.

Dr. Habib Dagher stands in front of the Ocean Wave/Wind testing pool, the only one of its kind in the US and a model of the UMaine's offshore floating wind tubine and platform built at UMaine. Both are firsts for America and promise to move the USA closer to energy independence. Photo by Ramona du Houx

The long-term goal is to erect a full-scale offshore floating wind farm that would power Maine, and feed excess electricity into the N.E. power grid. The farm would be positioned far enough out in the ocean so that no one would be able to see it from the shore. 

The DOE let the world know the U.S.A.’s great offshore wind potential when they unveiled a joint report with the Department of the Interior in September of 2016.

Habib Dagher, executive director of the Composites Center and principal investigator of the project

“The biggest resource that was available to us in Maine that’s untapped was offshore wind,” said Dr. Habib Dagher, executive director of the Composites Center and principal investigator of the project “To put things in perspective, the Gulf of Maine has about 156 gigawatts of offshore wind capacity within 50 miles. A gigawatt is a good-sized nuclear power plant.”

CMP will be able to buy electricity generated from Maine Aqua Ventus. 

 Because of the research and development being conducted at the Advanced Composite Center the university also hosts the most advanced wind/wave testing facility in the world, along with a wind blade stress testing facility.

Maine provided grants to help the growth of this industry to the Center during the Baldacci administration, with voter approved bonds. Then the DOE took an interest in the project and started the federal grants flowing after Former Energy Secretary Steven Chu visited and came away saying, “I’m impressed.”

While politics with Gov. LePage held up a lot of progression on the project, Dagher kept working on it.

Now, Maine is poised for real growth in this industry but without continued national support the rest of the world may take over the lead. France, Scotland, Spain, Japan and a host of other countries are testing their own versions of VolturnUS. Some have already deployed larger scale models. These nations have woken up to the reality that floating offshore wind farms will bring their citizens clean renewable electrical energy at reasonable cost effective rates.

Initially, the price of offshore wind won’t be cost competitive but similar to many alternative energy platforms the cost will diminish significantly as it pays for itself over the years. “It will be 7 cents per Kilowatt hour,” said Dagher. “That’s cost competitive.” 

Changing political winds at the state and federal levels have made it a challenge to secure long-term funding for a wide range of alternative energy sectors, thereby allowing other countries to lead. According to a February 2016 in Scientific American China is now the world’s largest wind turbine manufacturer with the Danes second and the U.S.A. third.

In June 2019, Governor Mills signed into law LD 994, a resolve sponsored by Republican Senator David Woodsome directing the PUC to approve the contract for Maine Aqua Ventus. The University of Maine has estimated that Maine Aqua Ventus will produce nearly $152 million in total economic output, and more than 1,150 Maine-based jobs, including jobs for design and construction. Operations and maintenance of the facility will create an additional economic output of approximately $30 million over 20 years.