Maine has an incredible opportunity to lead the world in offshore wind technology, foster a Maine-grown industry, and cultivate a renewable form of energy with long-term environmental benefits. It’s getting closer to doing all those things after a consortium of energy, technology, construction and marine-related firms called Maine Aqua Ventus GP LLC submitted an offshore wind energy pilot project proposal to the Maine Public Utilities Commission. Some of its proposal was made public Wednesday.
The collaborators — primarily the University of Maine, Pittsfield-based Cianbro Corp. and energy company Emera — don’t yet have to reveal specifics about the estimated economic impact of its proposed two-turbine, 12-megawatt floating offshore wind energy pilot project off Monhegan, known as Maine Aqua Ventus I. (They will in a few weeks.) But the promise is clear. If the PUC approves a term sheet and subsequent power purchase agreement, it will put the consortium in a highly competitive position for $46.6 million from the U.S. Department of Energy to complete the pilot and then pursue a larger, production-scale project.
The politics to this point have been messy. Norwegian energy giant Statoil was originally the only company to submit a proposal to the PUC, for turbines off the coast of Boothbay Harbor. Last June, at the behest of Gov. Paul LePage, the Legislature approved reopening the bidding process for the offshore wind project, so the university could compete. The university had only two months to put together its proposal, which, after working around the clock every day, it did. On Oct. 15, Statoil announced it was pulling out of the state to instead pursue a project in the waters off Scotland, citing Maine’s uncertain commercial environment.
It’s now up to the home team, and the pressure is intense. After being whittled down from more than 70 projects nationwide, now, apparently without Statoil, the university is competing with five other projects — in Virginia, Texas, Oregon, New Jersey, Ohio (on Lake Erie) — for one of up to three awards of $46.6 million each. The Maine consortium would use the money to take what it’s already done on a small but historic scale — by becoming the first in the Americas to send electricity to the power grid from an offshore wind turbine off the coast of Castine — and make two turbines at scale (about as tall as the Penobscot Narrows Bridge Observatory).
Here are some broad reasons why the university’s offshore wind project shows promise:
— The technology is innovative. Because the turbines are built to float — and remain in place with anchors — they can be stationed farther from shore than turbines that must be drilled into the seafloor. (Only one other competitor, off Oregon’s coast, is using floating technology.) They are also easier to build, transport and maintain. The turbines have a concrete hull and composite tower, making them lighter than traditional steel towers. The concrete and composite materials also resist corrosion, which reduces operating costs.
— The project is largely Maine-grown. The technology was developed over more than five years and was designed for conditions in the Gulf of Maine, based on more than a decade of wind and wave data. The concrete will come from local quarries; construction will happen along Maine’s waterfronts; and the work will be done by Maine engineers, construction workers, manufacturers, electrical workers, college students, marine workers and environmental scientists. It will provide free electricity to Monhegan.
— Location is key. After the creation of the Ocean Energy Task Force in 2009, state agencies reviewed hundreds of physical, environmental and public characteristics across Maine — including wind speed, ocean wave height and currents, water depth, seafloor characteristics, scenic resources, avian species and marine mammals, commercial fishing, navigation, local support and proximity to ports, rails and transmission infrastructure — to find the best potential offshore wind test area. The Legislature ultimately assigned the university the test site off Monhegan — about 2.5 miles south of the island and 10 miles from the mainland.
Maine’s offshore wind resource is recognized as one of the best in the country, and demand for electricity is high along the Northeast coast. But amid the PUC and federal grant approval process, Maine shouldn’t forget what’s needed to create the framework to support a new, successful industry. For instance, for the state to use this wind resource to its advantage, Maine residents will need to develop the expertise necessary to keep up with technological innovations. The university has built new programs in renewable energy, has an offshore wind internship program for students, and has developed graduate-level courses in offshore wind. But participation will need to expand to meet industry demand.
There are many reasons not just for the PUC but the country to support the Maine offshore wind team members. May the wind be at their backs.