The Big and Small of Wind

Posted Jan. 20, 2010, at 6:55 p.m.

Wind energy development in Maine has long been about reducing energy costs and dependence on dirtier, imported sources of power. With a second large federal grant, the University of Maine is helping position the state to take advantage of another part of the equation — developing wind power components in the state, which could lead to new jobs here.

Earlier this month, it was announced that the U.S. Department of Commerce had awarded the university $12.4 million — the campus’s largest ever construction grant — for a laboratory to develop and test offshore wind turbine components. A focus will be using composite materials — some made from Maine-grown wood — for the turbines.

The Advanced Nanocomposites in Renewable Energy Laboratory is expected to be completed in spring 2011. The state is hoping to have a prototype turbine in the Gulf of Maine sometime that year.

The total budget for the new building is now $17.4 million. UMaine received a $5 million grant from the state in August 2008, which allowed the project to get started.

UMaine’s new laboratory will be the only such facility in the United States to house the complete cycle of nanocomposite development and testing. The building also will include a nanocomposites laboratory where researchers will be able to break down wood fiber to nanolevels — the particles would be so small as to be nearly atomic — in order to research how to add the fibers to other materials to further strengthen composites. The resulting composite material eventually could be used in wind turbine components such as blades.

This complements work done at the university’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center.

A consortium including UMaine researchers and about 30 businesses and organizations will work on an offshore wind turbine prototype at a site near Monhegan Island, the state announced last month. That consortium, called DeepCwind, recently received an $8 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to create the Maine Offshore Wind Energy Research Center.

“This is exciting news for the whole state,” Advanced Structures and Composites Center Director Habib Dagher said shortly after he heard of the grant award from Sen. Susan Collins. “It’s going to allow us to truly strengthen our leadership role in the area of offshore wind. Without this research facility, we can’t do the research we need to do.”

In other words, the grant will help the university and state move the concept of jobs and development in the wind energy industry from a concept toward reality.

Collins said at the grant announcement that the deep-water offshore wind energy industry eventually could bring in 15,000 jobs and $20 billion in investments to Maine.

It is estimated Maine has the potential to produce more than 125 gigawatts of power in deep water within 50 nautical miles of the coast. The entire U.S. coastline has about 1,500 gigawatts of offshore wind potential in such waters. Developing the technology that will be used to harness some of that wind would produce big dividends for Maine.

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