UMaine officials woo offshore wind firms

Posted Feb. 21, 2011, at 10:46 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 22, 2011, at 12 a.m.
The DeepCwind Consortium is investigating three general designs — Buoyancy Stabilized, Ballast Stabilized and Mooring Line Stabilized — for modeling at the University of Maine Deepwater Offshore Wind Test Site.
The DeepCwind Consortium is investigating three general designs — Buoyancy Stabilized, Ballast Stabilized and Mooring Line Stabilized — for modeling at the University of Maine Deepwater Offshore Wind Test Site.

BANGOR, Maine — The DeepCwind Consortium has a few things it wants potential offshore wind farm developers to know.

What kind of environmental and engineering studies will be needed, where a power cable might come ashore and connect to the grid, what kind of technical and economic expectations there are, and how long the permitting process may take are among the topics covered in a nearly 300-page report that the University of Maine-led consortium is releasing to potential developers Tuesday.

Coordinated with the release is a webcast of the report scheduled for the same day at UMaine. Potential developers in a 30-megawatt offshore energy pilot project are expected to attend the presentation in person or to observe online. Proposals from interested developers must be submitted to the Maine Public Utilities Commission by May 1 of this year.

According to Dr. Habib Dagher, head of UMaine’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center and a lead official in the consortium, between 30 and 50 people representing potential developers from Asia, Europe and North America are expected to attend Tuesday’s webcast. Dagher said Monday that the names of potential developers are being kept confidential at this point, though the names of any still interested likely would be made public by the time they sign a contract with the PUC.

Dagher said there are only a “handful” of offshore wind developers and that more than half of them have expressed an interest in Maine’s pilot project. A location in the Gulf of Maine for the project has not been determined. He said the consortium would be “really happy” if the PUC gets more than one proposal from a potential developer by the May 1 deadline.

“Our hope here is to get at least one excellent proposal,” Dagher said.

The purpose of the report, Dagher said, is to provide developers with information they will need to know if they plan to respond to the request for proposals the consortium issued Sept. 1, 2010. Without sharing such information, developers would have to expend considerable time and energy gathering it on their own, he said, which likely would extend the time before a pilot project could get up and running.

As it is, the process for conducting impact studies and getting permits for the pilot project could take as long as five years from the time the PUC signs a contract with a developer, most likely sometime next year. That would mean that it could be 2017 before the first half-dozen or so turbines are floating in the Gulf of Maine and transmitting power to land.

According to Dagher, it is important that Maine move quickly because of the potential economic benefits. If Maine can attract the nascent floating offshore wind industry, he said, it could result in billions of dollars being invested and thousands of jobs being created in Maine as the industry grows over the next 20 years.

“We want to be the first to do this, if possible,” Dagher said of developing a floating offshore wind farm. “It’s just like pulp and paper. It’s just like lobsters. It’s just like potatoes. We can be exporting clean electrons.”

Initially, state and consortium officials would want a developer to generate up to 30 megawatts of energy offshore, with possibly 5 megawatts coming from tidal power and the rest from wind.

Dagher said that over the long term, a 30-megawatt project would be too small to be economically viable. Eventually, if the technology proves viable and sustainable, consortium officials believe there could be several hundred floating turbines 20 miles or more out in the Gulf of Maine generating 5 total gigawatts of electricity, roughly the same output as five nuclear power plants.

“We want Maine to grow this industry,” Dagher said.

Dagher said offshore wind has the potential to produce clean, renewable energy that costs less than electricity generated by other means. Floating turbines that can be assembled on or near shore and then towed out to sea likely will be cheaper to produce than turbines that have to be erected and then bolted to the seafloor, he said.

Consortium officials also believe that the cost of fossil fuels will continue to rise over the next two decades, to the point that electricity generated by natural gas, coal or even nuclear power will be more expensive than offshore wind. Dagher said the consortium projects that wind power could be sold as cheaply as 8 to 10 cents per kilowatt-hour.

But according to the report, many things will have to be figured out before such goals can be achieved. There will have to be environmental studies to gauge the potential effects of floating turbines on fish, lobster, whales, birds and bats, the report indicates. Developers also will have to conduct many technical studies to gather data on the seafloor and sediments, wave behavior, ocean currents, and acoustic and electromagnetic impacts, among other factors.

Developers also would have to determine where a cable from the turbines would come ashore to connect to the grid. According to the report, 15 existing power substations have been identified along Maine’s southern and midcoast areas that have the capacity to support an offshore wind farm with 30 or fewer megawatts of generating capacity.

“Based on data currently available, it appears the best and most flexible interconnection points are located within the Bath, Wiscasset, Boothbay and Rockland areas,” the report’s executive summary indicates.

Tuesday’s event at UMaine is not open to the public, Dagher said, but state and consortium officials expect to hold public meetings in the coming years while plans are being developed for the pilot project.

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