EDITORIALS

Wind on the Water

Posted Feb. 23, 2011, at 8:21 p.m.

It’s a simple but profound truth — every dollar Mainers are not paying for fuel stays in our economy. Mainers collectively spend $5 billion annually to buy fossil fuels to heat our homes, businesses, schools and hospitals and to power our cars and trucks. And for every $1 increase in the price of gasoline or heating oil, an additional $1 billion is spent.

As everyone knows, fossil fuels are produced outside of Maine, so the state is essentially “exporting” $5 billion, and perhaps soon to be $6 billion each year. If just $1 billion can be kept within the state’s borders, it will find its way into our wallets, making for a much brighter economic outlook.

Understanding this simple math is why the proposal to generate 5 gigawatts of electricity from turbines floating 40 miles off Maine’s coast by 2030 is so important. Dr. Habib Dagher, director of the DeepCWind Consortium project at the University of Maine, uses this simple math to persuade people who may be skeptical about the future of the offshore wind proposal.

Much of the preliminary work for the offshore wind project has been compiled by UMaine researchers with help from the James W. Sewall Co. It will be available for companies bidding to construct and site test turbines, which will be located off Monhegan Island. The winning bidder or bidders, selected by the Maine Public Utilities Commission, will have a leg up on constructing the final project.

Enthusiasm for the wind power was high in Maine a few years ago. Some of that has waned as neighbors of existing and proposed land-based wind projects complain about noise and aesthetic effects. Offshore wind promises to offer a new frontier, one that is literally out of sight, 40 to 50 miles from land. Floating wind turbines have not been developed anywhere else, Dr. Dagher says, giving Maine a once-in-a-generation opportunity to perfect and export the hardware and expertise.

Though its location would solve some of the problems of land-based wind farms, the DeepCWind project is based on hard data. The wind capacity offshore is far greater than that on Mars Hill. Though the project is impressive in scope, the technology is, in some ways, rather basic. The turbines would be moored to the ocean floor by cables, and one of three or four ballast systems would keep them from tipping too far in high waves and winds. Electricity is transported to shore by a cable, with just a 10 percent loss factor. The turbines themselves can be towed to location in a day or two and towed back to shore for maintenance or repair.

A project of this scale will not be built in a year or two. The testing to full implementation period is about 10 years, Dr. Dagher says. As a point of comparison, he notes that it would take 12 years to build a new nuclear power plant. Like Interstate 95, it will be years before this new infrastructure bestows benefits. Mainers must be patient, and remember the promise of $1 billion rattling around in our pockets.

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