ORONO, Maine — The University of Maine unveiled the floating platform of VolturnUS, a one-of-a-kind offshore wind turbine that officials hope will shape the future of energy in Maine, during a ceremony Wednesday.
Later this month, the unit will be disassembled, trucked to Cianbro in Brewer, and put back together before the entire upright turbine is hauled down the Penobscot River to a spot off the coast of Castine. VolturnUS will be the first grid-connected floating wind turbine in North America and the first concrete-composite floating turbine in the world, according to Habib Dagher, director of the UMaine Advanced Structures and Composites Center.
“The goal is to be the first to do it and to do it right,” Dagher said Wednesday during an event at the university’s Offshore Wind Laboratory at the composites center.
The 65-foot-tall turbine prototype is a one-eighth-scale version of the huge 6-megawatt turbines that would create a 5-gigawatt farm 20 miles off Maine’s coastline by 2030. About 170 turbines, each taller than the Washington Monument, would create the 5 gigawatts of energy, which is equivalent to the energy output of five nuclear power plants. Officials estimate that project could bring $20 billion of private investment to the state and create thousands of jobs.
During Wednesday’s unveiling ceremony, a large blue tarp was pulled away to reveal a red-and-yellow concrete platform that will support the turbine at sea. The red portion will be the part that rests below the water’s surface.
The waters off Castine are an ideal test site because the waves are about one-eighth the height of the waves in the Gulf of Maine, according to Dagher. A crew from Maine Maritime Academy will be responsible for towing the VolturnUS prototype to its post on June 1 and 2. By June 3, it will be hooked up to the grid and providing electricity, Dagher said.
“This is a landmark day in the history of the University of Maine,” UMaine President Paul Ferguson said during the ceremony. He called the offshore wind effort a prime example of “remarkable research enterprise” that has given the university global status as a research hub.
Some offshore wind energy efforts in Europe, which has been involved in offshore wind since 1991, have struggled, resulting in lofty price tags and high energy costs. Turbines at other offshore wind farms need to have their bases driven into the seafloor, an expensive process. If a turbine needs work, it can be towed back to shore, where repairs will be less costly.
The more cost-effective floating wind farm approach should help keep electricity prices down to about 10 cents per kilowatt hour by 2020, which is competitive with other means of electricity production, Dagher said. Prior to that, the energy will be expensive by comparison. The concrete-composite turbine farms are expected to have 100-year life spans, compared to the 20- to 25-year life of current European farms.
The first full-scale turbine, which will have blades longer than the wingspan of a Boeing 747, is scheduled to go into the water in 2016. Data collected from sensors on the one-eighth-scale turbine will be used to test the VolturnUS design and determine what changes might be needed in the full-scale version.
Representatives of all four Maine congressional delegates congratulated Dagher, the offshore wind team and all the partners in the project. Sen. Susan Collins and Rep. Chellie Pingree recorded statements on video for the event.
Collins said the VolturnUS project would “lead to a new era of energy independence and create thousands of good-paying jobs right here in Maine.”
The U.S. Department of Energy gave the university a $4 million grant in late 2012 to help fund the installation of a pair of 6-megawatt turbines off Monhegan Island by 2017, creating an operational wind farm called Aqua Ventus I. That award makes the university a finalist for up to $47 million more in coming years.
Dagher credited the university’s 140-person offshore wind team for its work on the project, as well as other university staff and roughly 30 corporate partners, ranging from Cianbro to the University of Western Australia, as it moves into its next stages.
“None of us here is smarter than all of us,” Dagher said, borrowing a motto used frequently at Cianbro.
Cianbro Chairman and CEO Peter Vigue said during Wednesday’s event that the wind project is a “reflection of what Maine people are capable of achieving.”