Official hopes firms will put turbines in Gulf of Maine

Posted Feb. 22, 2011, at 8:36 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 22, 2011, at 8:53 p.m.

ORONO, Maine — Middle East instability may be one reason more people than expected attended or tuned in online Tuesday to a wind power developers conference at the University of Maine.

As popular uprisings have broken out in Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and elsewhere, the price of oil has been rising, pushed up by uncertainty over how the instability will affect oil production. The volatility of oil prices, according to state and federal officials, is a major reason the potential for offshore wind power development in the Gulf of Maine is getting a lot of attention.

“With turmoil in the Middle East, oil prices are edging up again,” Ned Farquhar, deputy assistant secretary of the federal Department of the Interior, said Tuesday morning at the conference.

The United States, Farquhar said, must figure out how to meet its energy needs in sustainable and secure ways that do not rely so heavily on importing oil from unstable parts of the world.

“It’s time to resolve these issues,” he said. “There ought to be bipartisan cooperation on that.”

Violence in Libya caused oil prices to jump Tuesday to more than $95 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange, their highest level in more than two years, according to The Associated Press.

Maine, Farquhar added, definitely has the potential to develop commercial-grade, pollution-free electricity from offshore wind for the East Coast market.

Dr. Habib Dagher, head of UMaine’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center and the primary proponent of the UMaine-led DeepCwind Consortium, had predicted that maybe 30 to 50 people total would attend or tune in online to Tuesday’s presentation about the technical, economic and environmental aspects of developing offshore wind farms in the Gulf of Maine. The information compiled by consortium officials was released Tuesday to potential developers in a report nearly 300 pages long, not including appendices.

Dagher said Tuesday afternoon, however, that between 250 and 300 people had tuned in to Tuesday’s webcast of the conference. Another 40 or so people, including consortium members and elected state officials, attended the conference live. Among the audience online were wind power industry officials from the United Kingdom, India and China, he said.

“It’s exceeded my expectations,” Dagher said. “There appears to be quite a bit of interest.”

According to Dagher, potential offshore wind developers who participated in Tuesday’s conference included Bluewater Wind and Fishermen’s Energy, both based in New Jersey, Deepwater Wind of Rhode Island and Spur Energy Inc. of Portland, Ore. Other firms that were represented either in person or online were General Electric, Cianbro, Technip of France and Norway’s Statoil, which is the only firm known to have a floating turbine prototype in the water, off the Norwegian coast. Statoil, incidentally, is closing its office in Libya because of the increasing violence there, according to a report published Tuesday by The Wall Street Journal.

Whether any of these firms end up submitting a formal development proposal to the Maine Public Utilities Commission by the May 1 deadline, Dagher said, remains to be seen. He said Tuesday that he still hopes to get at least one excellent proposal, but would be even happier with more than one.

Last September, the PUC issued a request for proposals for developing a pilot project of up to 30 megawatts of capacity at an unspecified location in the Gulf of Maine. The pilot project likely would include only half a dozen or so large floating turbines at least 10 miles off the coast, but any developer awarded a contract by the PUC will have to demonstrate the ability to expand that project to between 500 and 1,000 megawatts of generating capacity, according to consortium officials. One thousand megawatts is equal to 1 gigawatt, which is roughly the same output of a nuclear power plant.

If floating turbine technology proves to be economically, environmentally and technically viable, consortium officials have said, electricity generated by offshore wind within the next two decades could end up being cheaper than power generated from other fuels, including nuclear power. Until then, tax breaks and other financial incentives should help to provide capital needed to develop the industry, they have said.

Consortium officials have predicted that, if all the variables come together, there eventually could be several hundred turbines with a total generating capacity of 5 gigawatts floating in the Gulf of Maine.

According to Dagher, if the offshore wind industry takes root in Maine, it could draw billions of dollars in investment and create thousands of jobs in the state.

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