On Dec. 12, the same day that Forbes Magazine slapped Maine with its third consecutive “ worst state for business” tag, the U.S. Department of Energy deemed Maine a good place to invest in offshore wind energy development. That recognition fuels hope that better economic fortunes can be found on the prevailing winds in the Gulf of Maine.
In a competition that began with more than 70 applicants, projects based in Maine won two of the seven U.S. Department of Energy grants awarded to advance offshore wind energy development. Maine is the only state with two grant recipients.
The Advanced Structures and Composites Center at the University of Maine and Statoil North America will each receive as much as $4 million to move ahead with pilot projects designed to test floating turbine wind energy generation technology in the Gulf of Maine. Both will compete for one of three awards that could boost Department of Energy funding for the projects by $47 million over four years.
“Maine has competed at the highest level of competition and won these grants,” said Habib Dagher, director of the Advanced Structures and Composites Center and the leader of Maine’s effort to become a global hub for floating turbine research and development. “Maine is now at the forefront of this national effort. It’s very significant that the eyes of the world are on Maine.”
In addition to demonstrating their technical merit, the Maine projects survived rigorous review to determine their economic viability. Given the Forbes rating and long-term lethargy of the state’s economy, the business potential of offshore wind energy development in Maine warrants full exploration. Research and development feed economic revitalization, and the Department of Energy grants provide the latest evidence that Dagher and his associates have made savvy decisions that position Maine to benefit from the global market’s increased focus on floating turbines.
“The offshore wind industry is starting to realize that floating foundations are becoming an increasingly attractive alternative to fixed foundation structures,” international renewable energy consultant GL Garrad Hassan wrote in describing one of its programs at September’s global conference on wind power in Hamburg, Germany. “These developments are rapidly decreasing the cost of floating wind energy.”
Maine has a realistic opportunity to become an incubator for floating turbine technology development. China, with its voracious appetite for energy, and Japan, in the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear plant catastrophe, join Europe as potential markets for the knowledge about floating turbine technology being refined in Maine.
There are no floating turbine test sites in U.S. waters, and only two in the world — off the coasts of Norway and Portugal. The pilot projects proposed for Maine would test two different types of floating turbine technology.
The University of Maine-led Aqua Ventus I project, which aims to place two 6-megawatt turbines off Monhegan Island by 2017, is backed by more than 30 private investors. Their investments range from “tens of thousands of dollars to tens of millions of dollars,” according to Dagher. If the pilot project succeeds, developers would place a commercial wind farm with 80 turbines in a 4-by-8 mile area 20 miles offshore.
For the separate Hywind Maine pilot project that hinges on a four-turbine test of “spar-buoy” technology in federal waters off Boothbay Harbor, Statoil offers 40 years of profitable international energy development experience. If its pilot proves viable, Statoil would move forward with plans for a commercial wind farm. However, the firm’s representatives continue to seek common ground with the Maine Public Utilities Commission on ways to shield Maine utility ratepayers from cost increases associated with experimental technology.
Cost-containment is important, but the increased price for energy generated by the pilot projects also must be viewed as an investment in innovation designed to make wind power competitive with other energy sources. Asking firms likely to benefit from the pilot projects to buy some of the power generated at higher rates, as suggested by Ken Fletcher, director of the Maine Energy Office, would be one way to balance protection for ratepayers with a message that Maine isn’t afraid to be the U.S. birthplace for floating turbine technology.
The Department of Energy grants and Statoil’s ongoing interest in Maine add credibility to the state’s status as a potential hub for offshore wind energy development. Such positive attention from the global marketplace is rare and something that Maine should cultivate.