UMaine's first of a kind floating offshore wind platform with turbine continues to make progress



By Ramona du Houx

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 University of Maine'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.

Here, in the Gulf of Maine there is the equalivant of 156 nuclear power plants of wind energy available to be tapped.

 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.”

Back in 2007, when Dr. Habib Dagher, founding Executive Director of the University of Maine’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center, took his concept of making the base of a offshore wind turbine out of concrete, similar to concrete ship hulls, to Washington D.C., the reception was more than a chill. Undaunted the determined Dr. Dagher never gave up.

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.

While Dr. Dagher and his team continue to move forward the question of future federal funding looms.

But there is hope.

President Trump has promised to “make America great again.” There have been many times he’s declared that we need manufacturing brought back to America.

Offshore wind turbine production in America could be a priority, creating thousands of jobs while curbing climate change and providing millions of electricity users affordable energy.

“It’s a worldwide competition, if we don’t do it other nations will,” said Dr. Dagher.

Dr. Habib Dagher being interviewed by Former State Representative Alex Cornell du Houx for a Department of Defense documentary that includes the work being conducted at the University with their floating offshore wind turbine/platform designs. Photo by Ramona du Houx