UMaine's floating wind turbine development back in top three for $39 million in federal grants


Article by Ramona du Houx

On May 27, 2016, The University of Maine (UMaine) became one of the top three national competitors to continue to develop a technology for offshore wind power — thus creating a new clean energy industry.

“It’s a game changer for floating offshore wind in the U.S.,” said Dr. Habib Dagher, P.E., executive director of the UMaine Advanced Structures and Composites Center (AEWC) that has led Maine’s offshore wind effort.

University of Maine's floating wind turbine, VolturnUS, being christened. The turbine celebrated its first year at sea on Sept. 5, 2014, in Castine. photo by Ramona du Houx

Maine’s New England Aqua Ventus I floating offshore wind demonstration project, designed by a UMaine-led consortium, has been selected by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to continue to participate in a larger capacity in the Offshore Wind Advanced Technology Demonstration program. Aqua Ventus will now be eligible for up to $39.9 million in additional funding over three years for the construction phase of the program.

The DOE, under the leadership of its former Secretary Steven Chu, started this national program to develop an offshore wind industry strategy because about 80 percent of power electricity demand occurs in coastal states where off-shore winds are abundant. Those winds are the Northeast’s greatest untapped renewable energy resource, and UMaine is at the forefront of the research and development that will capture them.

“We appreciate the DOE’s vote of confidence in the VolturnUS floating concrete technology. With 12 independent cost estimates from around the U.S. and the world, the VolturnUS floating hull technology has been found to significantly reduce costs compared to existing floating systems. The design has also received a complete third-party engineering review. We look forward to successfully building the two-turbines demonstration project, and to helping start a whole new clean energy industry,” said Dr. Dagher.

The Aqua Ventus project is unique because it’s a floating concrete wind platform that houses the composite wind turbines, all constructed in Maine. These floating platforms will be far out to sea in the deepest waters with cables anchoring them to the ocean floor.

Why offshore wind—

  • The Gulf of Maine coastal waters could generate the power equivalent to over 100 nuclear power plants, according to NOAA.
  • Offshore wind represents a large, untapped energy resource for the United States— offering over 4,000 gigawatts of clean, domestic electricity potential, four times the nation’s current total generation capacity.
  • According to a report commissioned by the DOE, a U.S. offshore wind industry that takes advantage of this abundant domestic resource could support up to 200,000 manufacturing, construction, operation and supply chain jobs across the country and drive over $70 billion in annual investments by 2030.

When Dr. Dagher first learned that there were 100 nuclear power plants worth of wind energy that could be harnessed in the Gulf of Maine he went to work on a plan that would help Maine capture the free abundant energy. As a result UMaine has been developing the technology, which will result in the most efficient cost effective composite floating wind farm in the world.

Dr. Dagher talking with Gov. John Baldacci at the Capitol about UMaine's offshore wind project in 2008. Photo by Ramona du Houx

Dr. Dagher contacted the Baldacci administration and set the wheels in motion for new wind power laws, which resulted with the Maine Public Utilities Commission (PUC) setting standards and goals. This all pointed the direction for when the electricity became available to supply to Maine households, businesses and beyond. The goal—to get Maine off fossil fuel consumption and to export the excess energy to neighboring states.

During an International Trade Mission Gov. Baldacci, Dr. Dagher and some of his team went to Norway to see a potential design for the UMaine project. There, UMaine signed a Memorandum of Understanding to share technologies, which has proven beneficial to both countries.

Then Gov. John Baldacci went further, ensuring the project would receive research and development grants, which voters approved in the form of bonds distributed through the Maine Technology Institute. This gave the federal government confidence to invest in UMaine’s technology, thus starting the potential of earning up to $50 million in DOE grant development. Baldacci and the Congressional delegation lobbied for the grants and Sec. Chu visited Maine to see the facility first hand. He came away from UMaine saying, “I’m impressed.”

Then federal grants started to roll in.

Not long after the Secretary returned to D.C. he, Dagher, Gov. Baldacci and the Congressional Delegation discussed the establishment of a national offshore wind research center at UMaine. That center is now in fully operational as well as a wave ocean-testing center. Everything anyone manufacturing ocean wind turbines needs to test their designs is now available at UMaine.

“With New England Aqua Ventus on the front line of the offshore wind industry in the United States, Maine has the potential to be a leader in renewable energy,” said UMaine President Susan J. Hunter. “The level of research and development by UMaine researchers, students and partners that helped make the New England Aqua Ventus project a reality demonstrates the distinction of a public research university — and the difference it can make in its state, region and beyond.”

Dr. Dagher explains the offshore wind project to DOE Secretary Chu, with Governor John Baldacci, at the UMaine Laboratories. Photo by Ramona du Houx

The DOE continued to support the project until Gov. Paul LePage used it as a political football. Undaunted Dr. Dagher and his UMaine Aqua Ventus team continued to develop the project and when two other US wind proposals failed to perform UMaine’s status was reinstated. That’s why they are now in line to receive up to $39 million more from the DOE.

As a member of the House Appropriations Committee, Congresswoman Chellie Pingree has fought against cuts to the DOE’s offshore wind program.

“Since being picked as an alternate for this program two years ago, the dedicated team at the University of Maine has not let up one bit in further developing and improving its VolturnUS wind turbine,” said Congresswoman Chellie Pingree. “I’m so glad that the DOE is rewarding them for the incredible progress they’ve made. It is a pivotal step in securing significant future investments for this project as well as creating good-paying clean energy jobs in our state that can not be outsourced.”

Aqua Ventus has already won a 20-year power-purchase agreement from the Maine Public Utilities Commission, which makes it commercially more viable.

Over 25 other organizations will become part of this project, most of them based in Maine.

The launching of UMaine's VolturnUS in Brewer, Maine in 2012. Photo by Ramona du Houx

UMaine, Cianbro Corp. and Emera Inc. of Nova Scotia and Reed and Reed will all work on the project as most of the components will be manufactured in Maine. These entities have experience in the wind technology field by working on land based wind projects.

A major selling point that Dr. Dagher reminds reporters of is that the turbines are built with low cost maintenance in mind. They will be assembled off a ship out in the deep ocean. Like puzzle pieces coming together special cranes will haul the components from the ship to the platform. Keep in mind one wind turbine blade will be as big as a 747 jumbo jet and the wind tower will be as high as the Washington Monument in D.C.

Each platform anchored at sea, like buoys eliminates having to embed the platform into the ocean floor, which is very costly for European and Asian wind farms. The Maine Aqua Ventus farm will bob up and down, ridding the waves like a boat anchored offshore way out of sight of land.

In 2013, a one-eighth scale model, VolturnUS, was launched and tested off Castine. When VolturnUS began generating power it became the first offshore wind turbine in the Americas to send electricity into the power grid.

The next pilot project, this recent round of grants will help pay for, would consist of two full size turbines with a capacity of six megawatts. If this pilot project is as successful as the Castine turbine was, we could have hundreds of offshore wind farms nationwide and jobs for thousands of workers to install and maintain them.

VolturnUS in Castine, Maine generating energy to the grid. It was the first floating offshore wind turbine in the Americas. The technology was developed at the University of Maine. 

The Baldacci administration had plans to use the electricity to power Maine homes and to export the excess energy to all of New England. Now, those plans are still possible. “The Gulf of Maine is our Saudi Arabia of wind,” said Gov. Baldacci, more than once.

According to UMaine a floating wind-power project could create as many as 341 jobs and trigger at least $120 million in investment, with half of it going to Maine-based companies.

“The Aqua Ventus project represents a tremendous opportunity for the state to capitalize on our advanced and highly skilled workforce paired with our clean-energy ambitions,” said Jeremy Payne, executive director of the Maine Renewable Energy Association. “This project brings together the best of all three worlds: economic growth and innovation; emission-free electricity; and Maine-made secure energy.”

If all goes to Dr. Dagher’s plan, by 2020, a wind farm with 80 floating wind turbines would be established about 20 miles offshore.