MONHEGAN ISLAND, Maine — The group walked up winding dirt streets, past gray clapboard homes and studios, by an artist painting a roadside scene, to a white trailer at the top of a hill that had radar sensors whirring in circles, scanning the skies.
Idyllic Monhegan Island, an out-of-the-way artist colony that has boasted residents such as Rockwell Kent and Jamie Wyeth, is now the stage for a technological push into the future.
Two miles south of the island is the chosen test site for the first deep-water wind turbine prototype in U.S. waters. The DeepCwind Consortium plans to begin building the 180-foot tall prototype at Cianbro facilities this fall, with final assembly at Bath Iron Works.
Next August, the turbine will be deployed off Monhegan’s shores, and scientists from the University of Maine will be studying it closely to see how it reacts to waves, winds, storms, swells and everything nature can toss its way. They’ll also be studying how the turbine affects the environment, what vibrations from the floating technology do underwater, and how the prototype affects nature.
The work has already started. The box-trailer with the radar equipment has been in place over Lobster Cove for about a year, providing first-of-its-kind data on the altitude and pathways of birds that make their way to the island as a rest stop. The group checking out the equipment included UMaine Profs. Habib Dagher, a leader in the DeepCwind consortium, Peter Jumars, director of the school of Marine Sciences, several of their colleagues and Christopher Hart, the U.S. Department of Energy’s offshore wind manager.
The DOE has funded the prototype project with $7.7 million in recovery act grants, and with an additional $5 million in Congressional funds directed through the department.
Hart is the Tuesday keynote speaker at the EnergyOcean International 2011 conference, which runs through Thursday in Portland. On Monday, he started off the day meeting at BIW with top leaders from that company and from Cianbro, talking about the capabilities to get a prototype in the water. Then he and a dozen others, mostly from UMaine, boarded an old chartered lobster boat in Boothbay Harbor for the hour cruise out to Monhegan.
The boat stopped at one of the buoys currently collecting data for the project, checking out data including wave height and direction and weather conditions. It’s also equipped to record any endangered species that have been tagged with transmitters that come close, such as sturgeons and Atlantic salmon.
The area is beautiful – there’s obviously good reasons why artists have been coming here for a century. Goats and sheep dot a verdant green island next to Monhegan, a glimpse of a whale – possibly a minke – was seen off a bluff.
But for Hart, the technology cataloguing the neighborhood’s natural phenomena has added another dimension.
“In a word, it’s potential,” said Hart. “There’s a tremendous amount of potential for the United States to take a leading role globally in what is a very promising technology.”
Hart explained that the DOE sees cost savings in going after deep-water, far-offshore wind, rather than shallow-water, near-shore wind. Shallow-water turbines are sunk into the ocean floor, a tremendously labor- and capital-intensive process. Deep-water turbines can be built onshore and then floated out to their site, and then attached to an anchor system. Hart said estimates are that cost savings of up to 70 percent could be realized in the fabrication and installation of such turbines.
In addition, the wind in deeper water areas is better, and could drop costs to product power by up to a third, as compared to shallow-water turbines, Hart said.
As the technology advances, and as large-scale deep-water wind farms are developed, Hart said, he saw 7-cents per kilowatt-hour rates possible by 2030.
Hart noted that Norway has the world’s only deep-water turbine in operation. Portugal hopes to have a full-scale system in place next year. The United Kingdom, China, Korea, Japan and France have all announced research and development projects in deep-water wind, he said.
But the work being done in Maine is producing data and research that can be used as a bedrock for the industry in the U.S., he said.
“We’re well-positioned to be in that leading pack – if not leading the pack,” he said.
Maine’s model of collaboration between industry, public sector and academia is starting to be replicated around the country, he said.
Bill Follett, senior project engineer at Cianbro, said the cooperation between UMaine, his company, BIW and other firms has made the project work so far.
“The university is great at providing the research, the brain trust,” he said. “Industry helps to bring in the reality of it – what do we have to do to get it done, get it built?”
Cianbro is involved because the company sees the economic benefit to the state. If deep-sea wind farms are built off Maine’s coast, a whole support industry will have to be in place to install them, maintain them, etc., he said.
The first design to be built will have a single tower and a star-shaped base, with three legs. 180-feet from top to bottom, it will be partially submerged in 200-feet of water, about 2 miles off Monhegan’s coast. The group has several other designs it plans to build in 2012, and test in three-month periods in 2013.
To make deep-sea wind power economically feasible off Maine, there would have to be a 1,000 megawatt wind farm. That would provide roughly the power of one nuclear plant, and would consist of 200 five-megawatt turbines in a square area roughly eight miles by eight miles.
Such a farm would have to be at least 10 miles from any inhabited island, virtually invisible from an outpost like Monhegan.
But, said Dagher, there are many project phases and steps before anything like that becomes a reality. On Monhegan, where the population drops to about 30 in the winter and swells in the summer, part-year residents were just starting to come back.
Bob Bartels of Newtown, Penn., has spent 75 summers on the island. He sought out Dagher on Monday to ask how the research was progressing.
“I was pleased to see them moving in the direction of wind turbines,” said Bartels. “Fossil fuel energy has many disadvantages.”
Tom Martin, “The Bird Man of Monhegan” is a Manhattan resident who’s been visiting the island twice a year since 1954. The bird watcher has spotted clay-colored sparrows, lark buntings and lazuli buntings over the years – to name a few.
He paused Monday to talk to the researchers and ask them what they’re finding. A vast majority of the birds flying in are much higher than the turbine blades will be spinning, he was told.
Martin scoffed at any danger to birds.
“The cats catch more birds,” he said.