ORONO, Maine — Maine’s economic future is tied to its past, U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu was told Monday as he toured the AEWC Advanced Structures and Composites Center, where deep-water off-shore windmills to create electricity are being designed with input from traditional Maine industries.
Chu visited the University of Maine facility along with some of the state’s top political leaders.
Gov. John Baldacci, Sen. Susan Collins, who invited Chu to tour the center, and U.S. Reps. Michael Michaud and Chellie Pingree accompanied the energy secretary on the hourlong tour conducted by Habib Dagher, director of the center.
Chu, who has been advocating for the development of alternative energy sources for more than four years, saw firsthand the research and development activity related to deepwater offshore wind power. A Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Chu asked specific questions about the project.
“It’s really very impressive,” Chu said of the work being done at the center, “particularly the leadership Maine has shown in working to grow a sustainable economy while developing technology for renewable energy.”
The offshore wind project, Dagher said Monday, would create a new tech-nology using some of Maine’s traditional industries — forestry, shipbuilding, manufacturing and seafaring.
Dagher and his colleagues have esti-mated the project would create between 7,000 and 15,000 jobs per year between 2020 and 2030, when a network of commercial floating wind farms are ex-pected to be installed 20 to 50 miles offshore, out of sight of Maine’s coast-line. The project also is predicted to attract $20 billion worth of investments in the state over the next two decades.
The center, in collaboration with a consortium of businesses, is working to design, build and test floating platforms to support 300-foot towers with 200-foot blades in waters up to 3,000 feet deep more than 20 miles offshore. The project has been funded by two U.S. Department of Energy grants totaling $12.1 million, the beginning of a decade-long research, education and commercialization plan.
Researchers in Orono also are devel-oping platform models designed to resist high winds and heavy seas and keep the towering turbines stable. The lightweight wood composite material used to de-velop the “Bridge in a Backpack,” ac-cording to Dagher, would be used to build the platforms and blades.
The plan calls for the windmills’ components to be manufactured in Maine by boat-building firms used to working with composite materials. They could be assembled and “launched” at Bath Iron Works, then towed out to sea by barges. Once in place, the windmills would be maintained and repaired by technicians familiar with ocean work.
Phase One of the project, partially funded by an $11 million bond issue passed by voters June 7, is considered to be the test phase. A floating wind turbine prototype, built to one-third the scale of the final product, would be deployed off Monhegan Island next year. In Phase Two, the first full-scale model would be built and tested by 2014.
The third phase calls for a stepping-stone floating wind farm of five wind-mills to be tested between 2014 and 2016. The next phase could expand the test farm to a commercial farm between 2018 and 2020. The final phase, pro-jected to be completed by 2030, would create a network of floating farms and is projected to attract $20 billion in in-vestment money to Maine and create between 7,000 and 15,000 jobs each year.
Dagher’s lab on Monday resembled a high school science fair, with stations set up around the usually cavernous space that detailed each phase of the project. Businesses that are partnering with the university on various aspects of the project, such as Cianbro Corp. and Bath Iron Works, also were represented.
The secretary asked Dagher about the angle and pitch of the blades, how the damage caused by hurricane-force winds would be managed and the predicted cost per watt of producing the energy, a fig-ure that cannot be projected until the testing phase has been completed.It was impossible, however, for reporters, photographers and the politicians’ staffers to hear more than short snippets of the conversation between the physicist and the engineer. The two appeared, however, to enjoy “talking shop.”
Efforts to wire them with cordless mi-crophones failed in tests over the week-end, Joe Carr, spokesman for UMaine, said after the tour, due to the “cavernous nature” of the lab.
The engineer, the physicist and the politicians all praised Monday’s event and the center’s work.
“Today’s visit provided the opportunity for us to engage Secretary Chu in a detailed discussion of the technical aspects of the deep-water offshore wind project,” Dagher said after the tour. “[We] exchang[ed] information that will be valuable to him in his role leading the development of U.S. energy policy. We were able to demonstrate that UMaine, state government and Maine industry are united in efforts to reduce our reliance on foreign oil by capitalizing on this extraordinary natural resource.”
“I believe that deep-water, offshore wind has enormous potential to help us meet our nation’s electricity needs and to reduce our dependence on foreign oil,” Collins, who has supported federal funding for the project, said Monday. “But it also presents an exciting oppor-tunity for the state of Maine to create thousands of much-needed, good-paying ‘green jobs.’”
Baldacci said Chu’s visit showcased “the intense commitment and broad-based support behind renewable energy development in Maine.”
“Maine people recognize the economic, national security and environ-mental dangers in reliance on foreign fossil fuels to heat our homes and power our cars,” the governor said. “And they support the work going on today that will create thousands of new jobs, and translate into cleaner, safer power, put-ting our state in control of our energy future.”
Michaud said the work being done at UMaine showed the state is at the fore-front of research and development when it comes to the nation’s clean energy future.
Because plans now call for the wind-mills to be placed in U.S. waters, wind farm developers would need permits from the federal Minerals Management Service before they could begin operating. That agency took seven years, ac-cording to a report published earlier this month by a southern Maine newspaper, to approve a shallow-water wind project off Cape Cod on which construction has not yet begun.
Last week, Maine joined nine other states and the U.S. Department of Inte-rior to establish the Atlantic Offshore Wind Energy Consortium to work to streamline the review and siting process for offshore wind projects in U.S. waters, the governor’s office announced. One goal of the group is to get the permitting process down to three years.
The proposed steppingstone farm of 25 floating windmills most likely would be the first project to pioneer the stream-lined process, according to Karen Til-berg, Baldacci’s senior policy adviser.
The Minerals Management Service has been criticized recently for being too lax in its oversight of BP’s oil rig, which caused the current spill in the Gulf of Mexico. That event has caused politicians in Washington to look seriously for alternative energy sources, Pingree said Monday.
“With barrels of oil spewing from the gulf floor as we speak,” she said, “we should need no other reminder about how critical it is to shift to clean-energy sources as quickly as we can.”