AUGUSTA, Maine — The U.S. Senate has approved $5 million for a University of Maine research program seeking to develop wind turbine technology capable of operating in the harsh conditions in the Gulf of Maine.
A state task force, meanwhile, continued on Thursday to discuss the enormous opportunities but daunting technological, financial and regulatory challenges of developing ocean-based renewable energy projects off the coast of Maine.
The funding for a National Deepwater Offshore Research Center at UM was included in the 2010 energy and water appropriations bill that passed the full U.S. Senate on an 85-9 vote Thursday evening.
In addition to funding for wind turbine research, the Senate bill contains $800,000 to design and install solar panels and an automated weather station at the University of Maine at Presque Isle and $60,000 to complete dredging of Bass Harbor in Tremont.
Gov. John Baldacci, Maine’s congressional delegation and UM researcher Habib Dagher have been lobbying for months to establish a nationwide deep-water wind energy research program on the Orono campus.
The program is to be based at the university’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center, which already is working to develop floating turbine technology durable enough to withstand the extreme weather and corrosion factors of the coast of Maine.
Researchers estimated that the deep waters off the coast of Maine contain more than 120 gigawatts of untapped wind power potential. But while wind power projects are being developed in the U.S. and Europe for relatively shallow waters, the technology for placing floating platforms in deep waters is much less developed.
U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, both Maine Republicans, praised inclusion of the $5 million in the spending bill. Senate and House negotiators will have to work out differences between the two chambers’ respective bills, however.
“I am proud to secure federal funding to support critical wind energy research that is [under way] at the University of Maine,” Collins, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said in a statement. “This has the potential to diversify Maine’s energy supply, reduce our dangerous dependence on foreign oil, and create thousands of new jobs.”
The UM research center is also expected to operate one of five offshore wind turbine test projects proposed for the coast of Maine. Officials at the state Department of Conservation and the Maine State Planning Office hope to select the sites for the pilot projects by year’s end.
A state task force, meanwhile, is moving forward with its work to identify economic, regulatory and technical obstacles to making Maine a major producer of wind energy from offshore turbines. The state’s official goal is to have 3,000 megawatts of wind power installed in the state by 2020, with at least 300 megawatts coming from offshore turbines.
The group, called the Governor’s Ocean Energy Task Force, spent part of Thursday discussing the outreach to potential developers of the pilot sites and eventually to the wider community. Members stressed the importance of keeping local officials, commercial fishermen and the general public informed as those projects move forward in order to address concerns about the effects of the turbines.
The group also discussed how a relatively small state like Maine could tap into both the renewable energy market and the growing wind turbine manufacturing sector.
Rep. Stacey Allen Fitts, R-Pittsfield, said he believes electricity — and especially renewable energy — could become a major exportable commodity for Maine. For that reason, Fitts said, he looks at electricity generation as a type of manufacturing for the state.
Task force member Beth Nagusky, director of the Office of Innovation and Assistance at the Department of Environmental Protection, said a key focus of the group is helping the state encourage development of deep-water offshore turbines but also to prepare for potential shallow water projects.
New Jersey and Delaware are already working with developers of shallow water wind power projects. The recently passed legislation authorizing the five pilot projects helped send a positive message to the industry, Nagusky said
“We put Maine on the map … as a place that is inviting,” Nagusky said.