UMaine extends wind turbine testing in Castine, prepares bid for wind farm subsidy

VolturnUS, the first-of-its-kind wind turbine, designed and built at the University of Maine, became the first grid-connected offshore wind turbine in the Americas to provide electricity to the power grid on June 13.
VolturnUS, the first-of-its-kind wind turbine, designed and built at the University of Maine, became the first grid-connected offshore wind turbine in the Americas to provide electricity to the power grid on June 13. Buy Photo
Posted July 13, 2013, at 4:24 p.m.
Last modified July 14, 2013, at 6:14 p.m.

CASTINE, Maine — As the University of Maine prepares its bid for a long-term contract for an offshore wind energy farm, the school announced that it will extend its test deployment of a floating wind turbine in Castine Harbor to a year.

Elizabeth Viselli, manager for offshore wind programs and spokeswoman for the university’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center, said Saturday the turbine would remain in Castine so the VolturnUS team could test it against harsher winter conditions.

“The best data we can get from that area is in the fall and again in early spring,” she said. “Over the winter, you see bigger waves and bigger winds. This data scales very well, and can indicate how a the full-scale [VolturnUS] will react in those weather conditions.”

The university deployed a one-eighth-scale version of its VolturnUS turbine in May and connected the floating windmill to the U.S. power grid in June, marking the first time energy flowed into the country from offshore wind.

Originally, UMaine intended to test the turbine in Castine for only the month of June, after which it would be deployed off Monhegan for a few weeks before being stored away on land for the winter. Now, Viselli said it will remain in the harbor through May 2014.

The offshore wind team at UMaine is putting together a proposal for the consideration of the Maine Public Utilities Commission to secure a long-term power contract for the development of a floating wind turbine farm off Monhegan Island. The university has stated its ambition to have a 5-gigawatt wind farm of more than 150 full-scale VolturnUS models in the Gulf of Maine by 2030.

The coveted contract is part of the Ocean Energy Act, which allows the PUC to authorize contracts to support up to 30 megawatts of offshore tidal and wind energy development. Contracted organizations will receive a price-purchase agreement, which will oblige utility companies to buy the offshore energy at an above-market rate as a means to support the burgeoning industry.

In 2010, the PUC approved a term sheet — a precursor to the long-term contract — for a 5-megawatt tidal energy facility in Washington County, and in January of this year, it approved one for Statoil North America to build a pilot 12-megawatt, four-turbine floating wind farm 10 miles off Boothbay Harbor.

The PUC estimates the Statoil project would be mean a $120 million investment in Maine between 2013 and 2016, when the switch to the pilot farm would be flicked on.

At the time of the initial bid process, the VolturnUS project was not far enough along for the university to compete, Viselli said. But the Legislature in June approved a bill by Gov. Paul LePage to reopen the bid process to allow UMaine to give it a shot.

Detractors of the plan by LePage, who has loudly opposed wind farm development in the past, said the bill effectively changed the rules midstream. Statoil agreed, and promptly announced it had put all its Maine investment plans on hold. The governor’s office didn’t seem to mind.

“There have been significant developments in the burgeoning offshore wind industry in Maine over the last several months, and it is critical that we determine whether additional technologies may meet the objectives of the Ocean Energy Act and provide more economic opportunities for Maine,” wrote Patrick Woodcock, director of the governor’s energy office, in a statement marking the reopening of the bid process on July 10.

Viselli said that UMaine has reached out to Statoil to discuss the possibility of working together. The two groups could co-locate their respective projects, which would save money on permitting, or share the electrical infrastructure necessary to connect offshore wind farms to the grid.

So far, Statoil has not accepted either idea, Viselli said.

Still, the university is not viewing Statoil is its competition. While there is a cap on how many megawatts the state will subsidize with ratepayer money, the PUC is allowed to approve more than one term sheet. There’s no reason UMaine and Statoil couldn’t both build, she said.

“What’s most important is that we have an opportunity to build an industry in this state,” she said. “And an industry isn’t just one company, it’s many.”

Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.

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