NORTHPORT, Maine — If there really are answers blowing in the wind, several dozen scientists, regulators and energy industry officials hoped to draw closer to them as they gathered Tuesday at a local conference center.
The event, held at Point Lookout, was billed as the first Maine Deepwater Offshore Wind Conference. It attracted University of Maine and other state officials, environmental researchers, engineers and private industry representatives who wanted to learn more about the Deep C Wind Consortium’s offshore wind research and development efforts.
“No one else is doing it,” Peter Vigue, chairman and CEO of Pittsfield-based Cianbro Corp., told more than 200 people who attended the conference. “We can be the first.”
The Deep C Wind Consortium consists of more than three dozen universities, government agencies, private companies and nonprofit organizations that hope to attract significant offshore wind development investment to the state. If it succeeds, state and federal officials have said, it could result in as much as $20 billion being invested in Maine and 15,000 wind energy-related jobs being created.
So far, the consortium has received more than $25 million in public funding, much of it going toward construction of a key component of the collaborative research effort.
UMaine’s Offshore Wind Laboratory, which is under construction next to the university’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center in Orono, is projected to cost $17.4 million, $12.4 million of which has been funded through a federal grant with the rest coming from state funds. Construction is expected to be complete by May 2011.
According to UMaine officials, the 37,000-square-foot facility will include chambers capable of reproducing many of the natural conditions found in the Gulf of Maine, such as extreme temperature and humidity levels and even briny fog. The lab also will include a reinforced concrete test stand moored to bedrock that will allow consortium researchers to test turbine components such as composite material blades up to 70 meters in length.
But there’s a lot of other work being done related to offshore wind research besides the Orono construction project, consortium officials said Tuesday. Over a series of categorized sessions that ran from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., conference attendees were briefed on ongoing environmental and engineering studies.
Environmental scientists with the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, Island Institute and UMaine described some of the work they began this summer collecting data on the presence of birds, fish and marine mammals around Monhegan, where a small-scale test floating turbine is expected to be deployed in 2012. Officials with state agencies, universities and private consulting and engineering firms gave attendees an overview of some of the technical aspects of building and deploying large offshore wind turbines, and of the expected siting and permitting processes for permanent offshore wind farms.
Dana Humphrey, dean of engineering at UMaine, said the university is expanding its number of degree programs related to offshore wind research to help meet the anticipated demand for offshore wind energy-related jobs in the state. Maine now ranks low nationally for the rate of engineering degrees awarded, he said, but enthusiasm for offshore wind development has boosted the number of engineering students at UMaine.
“Our enrollment is up 21 percent over the past several years,” Humphrey said.
Dr. Habib Dagher, director of UMaine’s composites center and the consortium’s chief investigator, told conference attendees that though there has been skepticism of the viability of deep-water turbine development, it looks more viable the more consortium officials look into it. The Gulf of Maine, which is hundreds of feet deep and has abundant wind, seems to be an ideal location for deploying large turbines 20 to 50 miles out to sea, where they can’t be seen from land, he said.
Floating turbines with different types of buoyancy and flotation systems are being researched and have been projected to have masses similar to turbines that are fastened to and supported by the ocean floor, according to Dagher. The resulting weight of the turbines will help determine their feasibility and cost, he said.
With marine construction industry players such as Bath Iron Works and Cianbro already well established in Maine, it enhances the state as a prime location for floating turbine construction and deployment.
“Maine is doing a lot of things that haven’t been done elsewhere,” he said about advances in structural composite engineering that have been made at UMaine. “We think there is a better way to skin a cat.”
Cianbro’s Vigue emphasized that by reducing the need for increasingly expensive imported oil, offshore wind development could have a significant impact on the national economy, not just Maine’s alone. Maine is leading the charge toward such technology, he said, and can keep that edge if its officials, companies and residents work together to concentrate on that goal.
“Our economic development strategies in the past were an inch deep and a mile wide,” Vigue said. “We can’t be all things to all people. We need to focus.”