UM researcher tells Congress offshore wind power holds great potential

Posted July 23, 2008, at 12 a.m.
Last modified Jan. 27, 2011, at 11:50 p.m.

A University of Maine researcher told members of Congress on Tuesday that offshore wind power offers enormous potential for helping wean the U.S. off its fossil fuel dependence and that Maine is ready to lead the charge in developing the technology.

Habib Joseph Dagher, director of the Advanced Structures and Composites Laboratory at UMaine, said the Gulf of Maine alone contains 100 gigawatts of wind energy potential. That is equivalent to roughly 10 percent of the nation’ s electricity needs.

Tapping into only 5 percent of that potential would provide enough electricity to power all of the homes in Maine, Dagher said. Those winds are strongest during winter. So if a large number of Maine homes converted to heating with electricity rather than oil, wind power could help keep Mainers warm while alleviating the environmental and political concerns surrounding oil, Dagher said.

“You can think of the winds off the coast of Maine as a seasonal crop that can help heat the state,” Dagher told members of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.

Dagher appeared Tuesday after Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens gave committee members an overview of his ambitious plan to convert more electricity generation from natural gas to wind. That natural gas then could be used for transportation, lessening the nation’ s dependence on foreign oil.

But Dagher unveiled an equally ambitious vision of thousands of enormous wind turbines spinning off the nation’ s East Coast and West Coast as well as in the Great Lakes.

These turbines would be located about 20 miles out to sea, making them invisible from land and therefore less likely to encounter opposition from coastal landowners, Dagher said. And unlike the Pickens plan, which focuses on wind power development in the Midwest, offshore wind energy could be located closer to the nation’ s primary population centers.

But first, Dagher said, the nation needs to invest heavily in research and development of these deep-water, offshore wind turbines.

“We are ready to lead that in the state of Maine because right now we are in the eye of the heating energy hurricane,” he told committee members.

Wind energy facilities on land generate thousands of megawatts of electricity across the country. But there are no wind energy systems operating in coastal U.S. waters, which have the best wind resources and fewer environmental and sociological concerns.

Dagher and others who testified Tuesday said wind energy is only one part of what must be a multipronged solution to the nation’ s energy crisis. Homeowners, businesses and governments need to look at a wide variety of energy sources, including solar, geothermal, tidal and biomass, they said.

Researchers at UMaine’ s Advanced Structures and Composites Laboratory have launched a campaign to develop and deploy experimental wind turbines just off the continental shelf in the Gulf of Maine. They now are testing the durability of turbine blades at the center’ s Orono lab and are working with businesses and the startup organization the Ocean Energy Institute to solicit additional funding.

The end goal is to have 5 gigawatts of wind power in place in the Gulf of Maine by 2020.

The turbines would be located in anywhere from 100 to 500 feet of water and likely would stand more than 500 feet in the air from base to the tip of the 200-foot blades. Many land-based wind turbines, including those on Mars Hill and Stetson Mountain in Maine, are less than 400 feet tall.

“These are very, very large structures that we’ re talking about, and these would require different designs than onshore structures,” Dagher said in an interview after the committee hearing.

Dagher estimated that it would take $100 million to bring his and other researchers’ vision to fruition. Designing, building, deploying and testing the wind energy structures likely would take up to seven years, after which they could begin courting investors.

Dagher and others envision benefits to Maine beyond the generation of pollution-free power. They are talking with industry leaders, including Cianbro Corp., about the possibility of building the turbines and components in Maine.

Dagher estimated that designing, building and maintaining 5 gigawatts’ worth of turbines in Maine would generate $15 billion in economic activity for the state.

Maine Sen. Susan Collins, who is the committee’ s ranking member, said rising oil prices are causing “great harm” to the nation’ s economy. In Maine, more and more people are facing the prospect of having to choose between heating their homes this winter or eating well.

Collins called on the nation to develop a comprehensive strategy to diversify its energy resources and reduce reliance on oil from countries she described as “hostile to America.” She also reiterated her goal of American energy independence by 2020.

“Some experts believe such a goal is too ambitious, but I know that no goal is ever reached without first being set,” Collins said in her opening statement to the committee. “Just as the America of a half-century ago boldly stated its intentions to reach the moon, we must now declare our intention to achieve energy independence and security.”

kmiller@bangordailynews.net

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