ORONO, Maine — A whirlwind month for the University of Maine’s offshore energy efforts continued Friday with the unveiling of a unique buoy-based system that will measure wind speeds high above the Gulf of Maine.
“This is the first time in the Gulf of Maine that we’ll be able to measure wind speeds 300 and 400 and 500 feet up in the air,” the heights reached by the blades of huge offshore floating wind turbines of the future, said Habib Dagher, director of UMaine’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center, said Friday during a ceremony at the center.
The light detection and ranging system, or LiDAR,uses a laser to measure the speed of tiny particles in the air, gauging the wind speed up to 600 feet above the water’s surface. The university partnered with Vermont-based NRG Systems to build the LiDAR, which was mounted to a retrofitted buoy 10 feet in diameter.
“There’s a race right now across the world to develop and deploy these buoys,” Dagher said.
UMaine’s School of Marine Science’s Physical Oceanography Group has been measuring wind, wave and atmospheric conditions in the Gulf of Maine for more than a decade, but that wind data is gathered just 10 feet above the water by an anemometer. That data is used by many mariners and gives UMaine a leg up in the global race to implement these systems, Dagher said.
The buoy system is meant to be a cheap, portable alternative to the massive towers erected at some European sites to test the viability of prospective wind turbine farms.
UMaine’s offshore wind energy developments are gaining momentum. Earlier this month, the university unveiled the floating concrete platform that will support a 65-foot-tall turbine prototype that is being assembled at Cianbro in Brewer. The unit will be placed upright in the Penobscot River on May 31 before it’s hauled to a test site off the coast of Castine.
The turbine 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.
If the university has a successful launch of its first LiDAR buoy, it could lead the world in creating a new business that produces such systems for groups exploring wind development along the U.S. coast or across the globe, Dagher has said. Each unit could be sold for between $1 million and $1.5 million, he said.