PORTLAND, Maine — An international conference on ocean energy opened with a discussion around U.S. plans for offshore wind farms, a detailed breakdown of what’s been done in Maine, and of the questions that remain.
Several hundred people showed up for the first day of the EnergyOcean International 2011 conference, which runs Tuesday through Thursday and looks at policy, technology, financing and other aspects of energy derived from the seas, including tidal, wave, wind, solar and other sources.
A team of University of Maine engineers and researchers talked about the DeepCwind Consortium, a partnership between academia and industry that hopes to test the first deep-water offshore wind turbine near Monhegan Island in 2012.
The consortium has outlined a series of steps to increase the knowledge and data around deep-water wind, with a goal of having a 1,000-megawatt wind farm roughly 20 miles off the Maine coast by 2020. That would provide roughly the equivalent of a nuclear power plant in energy production.
The consortium is running tests and studying data from a planned test site two miles south of Monhegan Island, where it plans to put a 1/3-scale size floating turbine prototype next summer, where it will stay for three months.
Peter Jumars, director of the School of Marine Sciences at UMaine, said the test site was picked because it’s not a big spot for nesting seabirds or migrating marine mammals, and fishermen don’t use that area as heavily as they do other sites. So far, he said, radar studies have found that only a fraction of birds in the area fly at an altitude where they would potentially interact with the test turbine.
But he warned that there was only so much researchers could learn about potential environmental impacts from a 1/3-scale model, as opposed to a full-scale wind farm that would take up to an eight-mile by eight-mile square, with 200 turbines operating.
It will be much harder to get radar information from such a farm to study what impact the farm has on birds and bats, he said. And a large wind farm will shift the winds in the immediate area, creating different up-wellings and down-wellings in ocean waters. That may increase the amount of nutrients in the water, and may attract more fish to the site, he noted. It’s not an uncommon occurrence; islands have the same effect on waters, he said.
But if a farm goes in, there will have to be discussions around whether fishing trawlers would be allowed in the lanes between turbines. A question may be whether those areas would be more valuable to fishermen as fishing refuges than as trawling lanes, he noted.
“These are some of the questions coming at us that a 1/3-scale will not answer,” he said.
In addition to the test site off Monhegan, UMaine also is building an Offshore Wind Lab capable of testing wind blades up to 70 meters long, said Robert Lindyberg, DeepCwind project manager.
The lab will have the technology to build prototypes using robotics and composites. It will have a wind and wave testing area, an immersion pool to test components and the ability to expose equipment to salt spray and ultraviolet light.
“We can take whatever we manufacture and torture it, and get results back very, very quickly,” said Lindyberg.
As UMaine increases its lab facilities, it’s also bringing on additional faculty and increasing the number of minor academic degrees around alternative energy, said Dana Humphrey, dean of the College of Engineering.
The college is developing four undergraduate minors that broadly address renewable energy engineering, science and technology, economics and policy and ocean energy structures, he said. At the graduate level, there will be an offering of a master of science degree in renewable energy and the environment.
The morning’s session was kicked off by Christopher Hart, offshore wind manager for the U.S. Department of Energy. Hart spoke about efforts to get the cost of offshore wind down to an economic level, in part by going after the best quality wind, which tends to be in deeper waters.
Internationally, countries such as Norway and the United Kingdom are ahead of the United States in terms of offshore wind development, Hart noted. While U.S. developers and researchers are looking to learn from what other nations have done, companies in those countries see the U.S. market as enormous, he said, and tenuous discussions are being held regarding development here.
In Europe, financial backing for offshore wind originally came from small, entrepreneurial developers. That shifted to huge multinational utilities, he said, and is evolving to longer-term institutional investors, such as pension funds.
“We’re trying to short circuit that, in a way, and bring the serious dollars necessary to make this happen,” said Hart.
He noted that a 1,000-megawatt farm currently is a $4 billion to $5 billion investment.
“It’s going to take some serious players to be able to do that,” he said.
Asked about ways to offer incentives to potential investors of offshore power, possibly through preferential tariffs such as that used for wind in Europe and for solar in California, Hart said his agency is talking now with the Department of Treasury and the Department of Commerce about the subject.
“I think it’s safe to say a direct feed-in tariff sort of mechanism probably doesn’t fit this market very well, but it’s very difficult to comment on those kinds of things,” Hart said. “The right people are having those discussions as we speak.”