The second stage of America’s floating offshore wind turbine energy project gets utilities commission green light

January 15th, 2014 · 

The VolturnUS floating offshore wind turbine 1/8th pilot at it’s launch. VolturnUS is the only offshore wind turbine in the Americas. photo by Ramona du Houx

The Maine Public Utilities Commission (PUC) approved in a 2-1 vote for Maine Aqua Ventus’ pilot floating offshore wind energy project, VolturnUS. The opposing PUC commissioner said the project would cost ratepayers too much. In reality the impact of the pilot project on ratepayers is about 75 cents per month per home for the life of the 20-year project. Overall the long-term project could attract $20 billion in private investment and create thousands of jobs.

“There’s 150 gigawatts of offshore wind off of our coast, enough to power the state of Maine 70 times over. It’s our largest resource and we’re making an investment today to figure out how to harvest this resource for future generations,” said Habib Dagher, of the Advanced Structures and Composites Center at the University of Maine and project director. “It’s an important day for the state of Maine and an important day for the country.”

Dagher said the vote also represents “an important step” to advance the second Maine Aqua Ventus pilot project, which would consist of two six-megawatt turbines off Monhegan Island. A one-eighth scale floating wind turbine, VolturnUS, was launched off Castine last spring for testing and observation. The “floating lab,” as Dagher calls it, was the first offshore wind turbine in the Americas to produce energy to the electric grid and continues to do so. VolturnUS will be taken out of the water this May.

The VolturnUS floating offshore wind turbine 1/8th pilot at it’s launch. VolturnUS is the only offshore wind turbine in the Americas. photo by Ramona du Houx

“The PUC’s decision is the next step in securing the grant for which Aqua Ventus was shortlisted last year, which is critical for the success of this important project for our state,” said Maine Aqua Ventus 1’s Jake Ward.

The Department of Energy grant is worth $46 million and will help create a wind farms, far out at sea, that can produce power at competitive rates.

“We’re working 24/7 for the state of Maine to win this contract with the Department of Energy and today is an excellent shot in the arm for the project moving forward,” said Dagher.

The PUC’s decision insures Maine Aqua Ventus will receive electric ratepayer support as it tests large scale VolturnUS floating offshore wind turbines designed and developed at UMaine. Maine Aqua Ventus is a Maine group consisting of Emera, Cianbro and Maine Prime Technologies LLC, a spin-off company representing UMaine.

VolturnUS has a university-led consortium, DeepCwind, behind it. The finical backers include the U.S. Department of Energy, the state of Maine and a large group of mostly Maine companies including Cianbro. The consortium’s goal is to install two full-size turbines off Maine’s Monhegan Island in 2016 and have a full-scale 500-megawatt offshore wind farm in place by the 2020s. The overall plan is to produce 5 gigawatts of power offshore by 2030, which is the equivalent output of five nuclear power plants. That much energy would provide enough electricity to Maine two times over. The excess could be exported to the Boston market.

Lawmakers, legislators, businesses and Maine citizens are overwhelmingly behind wind projects in Maine, according to a recent poll.

PUC agreement outlines the conditions under which Maine Aqua Ventus’ pilot project would sell its electricity.

A law, developed by the Baldacci administration and legislature, and put on the books in 2010 stated that the PUC had to conduct a competitive bid process to award ratepayer support to a developer of any offshore wind energy project.

Norway-based Statoil was the only proposal to make the PUC’s initial deadline and won approval for a plan to build a pilot 12-megawatt, four-turbine floating wind farm 10 miles off Boothbay Harbor. This did not detour Dagher and his VolturnUS team because UMaine had been working with Statoil since 2007. After a visit, with Governor John Baldacci on a trade mission, to Norway to see the world’s first floating wind turbine designed by Statoil in 2007, UMaine and the company signed a memorandum of understanding to share technology. Dagher said that UMaine would work with Statoil to put together a combined proposal for the next step of federal grants to help build their projects.

Maine was set to have two offshore wind projects.

Then Governor Paul LePage had a bill introduced to override the PUC’s decision about Statoil. That process has made some businesses weary about Maine keeping its word on contracts. So Statoil pulled out of Maine and has shifted its focus to developing a $120 million project in Scotland.

Critics complain about the price of the project to ratepayers. But the cost for electricity harnessed by offshore wind turbines should logically diminish over time.

“When you bought laptops six or seven years ago, your laptop cost $5,000 or more. Today you can buy it for a tenth that cost, because the industry has scaled up. And we’re no different,” said Dagher. “Our goal is to achieve wind-generated electricity at least 10 cents per kilowatt hour, which would be competitive with other forms of electricity generation.”

Dagher and his team are continually running different model variations at UMaine in Orono to streamline their designs to be more cost competitive. They are using the collected data from VolturnUS.

A recent study shows offshore wind turbines can cut the impact of violent storms hitting land in half. As Maine coastal properties are loosening ground to the ocean placing offshore wind turbines at sea could help protect them.

The irony in Massachusetts is with the Cape Wind project that has yet to erect a wind turbine offshore because wealthy residents have put up a fight against the project. Cianbro, a member of DeepCwind and Maine Aqua Ventus, will be building the Cape Wind turbines.