January 24, 2018
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Pondering new LePage mantra: Open for business — unless you’re from away

By Philip Conkling, Special to the BDN
Contributed photo | BDN
Contributed photo | BDN
Philip Conkling

If you look at a wind map of the United States, there are only a few great energy provinces. One stretches from Texas to North Dakota — the region, as the Broadway tune goes, “where the wind comes sweeping down the plains.” Another is off the Atlantic seaboard, where the intensity of the wind increases with the distance from shore, especially north of the Virginia border.

Comparing the wind resource map of the Gulf of Maine winds with the location of high-velocity winds along Maine’s inland ridgelines and mountains, the latter look like a few scattered specks of high energy sites embedded in a calm background. But offshore, wind energy is arrayed in bands parallel to the shore, peaking in the region 10-20 miles from the coast, where, coincidentally, giant wind turbines become specks on the horizon.

During the past half-decade, wind developers have maxed out the size of turbines they can site on land. The largest land-based wind turbines are limited by the diameter of the steel towers that can be carried overland on highways. Even on a low-bed trailer, you can’t get a tower over eight feet in diameter under an 11-foot overpass to support a 3 megawatt generator 250 feet in the air, even as engineers are developing huge new wind turbines capable of producing 5-10 megawatts of energy.

Thus offshore wind has become the new frontier for the wind energy industry, a trend that increased in urgency after the BP oil disaster led to a temporary suspension of deep-water oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.

Thankfully, Maine not only has an enormous wind resource in the Gulf of Maine but a group of entrepreneurial engineers at the University of Maine’s composites laboratory that has been working on developing floating platforms and anchoring systems that might allow the region to tap into a new, clean source of energy — and perhaps even develop technology and know-how that could be exported elsewhere. They deployed a one-eighth scale model of their turbine off Castine.

For the past four to five years, the university’s offshore wind team has been playing catch-up with the Norwegian oil company, Statoil, which pioneered deep-water ocean drilling in the North Sea and has deployed one of only two full-scale floating wind turbine prototypes off the Norwegian coast. Statoil proposed developing a $120 million four-turbine pilot project in the Gulf of Maine, about a dozen miles off Boothbay Harbor, and the university has proposed a pilot wind farm research project at a deep-water site off Monhegan.

A year and a half ago, the Maine Public Utilities Commission approved a special 28-cent per kilowatt-hour rate for Statoil’s pilot wind farm. Meanwhile the U.S. Department of Energy announced grants to help jumpstart offshore wind development, awarding seven planning grants of $4 million each to teams around the country. Two of these grants came to Maine — one for the university’s project, the other for Statoil’s, with the understanding that from these seven, the DOE would award up to $49 million for three finalists by the end of this year.

But as so often happens when there is a lot of money on the table, things got complicated. The governor wanted to give the home team Black Bears an opportunity to compete for the big DOE grant against the Statoil team “from away.” So in the last hours of the last day of the last legislative session, with lawmakers straining to complete a landmark energy bill, they agreed to the governor’s demand to allow the university to submit a competing proposal to the PUC.

Statoil called foul and immediately halted work on its plan. Last week it pulled up stakes altogether and headed to Scotland to develop its technology. The university has assembled a group of businesses, many local, under the name of Aqua Ventus to pursue its pilot project.

The DOE must be scratching its head, wondering why Maine would chase off an experienced industry player and cut its chances to become a center of offshore wind development by at least half. Meanwhile the rest of us are left pondering the governor’s new slogan — “Maine open for business, unless you are from away.”

Philip Conkling is the founding publisher of The Working Waterfront and Island Journal. Additional writings are available at www.conklingassociates.com.

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