ORONO, Maine — European officials are looking to the University of Maine’s offshore wind efforts to boost the amount of wind power produced on the continent and to ease public distaste for wind turbines.
Officials from Italy, Germany and Norway visited UMaine’s Offshore Wind Laboratory on Tuesday to get a preview of plans to install a 500-megawatt floating wind turbine farm in the Gulf of Maine by 2020.
The six delegates represent the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a Paris-based international group that studies and tries to push forward social, economic and environmental changes worldwide, according to Raffaele Trapasso, a group representative from Italy.
The debate over wind turbines in Europe is decades old, Trapasso said.
“Landscape has a high value over there,” Trapasso said. But with decades of wind development onshore, the public eventually started turning against turbines, complaining that the aesthetic costs were too high.
“You need the population to be supportive,” he said. “You need acceptance.”
So European nations led the push to take wind farms off the land and put them offshore. The first offshore wind turbine farm on the planet was finished in Denmark in 1991.
But those turbines had to be in shallow water so the base could be embedded into the sea floor. That meant people in coastal areas could see the turbines, which led to complaints that business, tourism and the economy in general were being hurt, according to Trapasso.
Turbines have grown more efficient over the years, producing more energy at less cost, but installing new turbines is difficult or impossible in many parts of Europe because the public has turned against them, Trapasso said.
The solution: out of sight, out of mind.
After the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development heard about the DeepCwind Consortium, a collaboration of UMaine and several private companies attempting to get offshore wind farms floating, it decided to send representatives to find out more.
The organization, which represents 34 countries, also sent officials to examine energy and economic projects in Vermont, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Oregon, Tennessee and Washington, D.C.
By putting the turbines on a floating “footprint,” or base, DeepCwind plans to anchor them in much deeper water more than 20 miles offshore — well out of view from the coast.
It’s an answer to a longstanding problem in Europe that Trapasso said he will take back with him.
It might not be a perfect solution, he said, because the European public still has many of the same worries that are echoed by Maine’s offshore wind opponents: How will the turbines affect sea life and fisheries? How will energy be brought back to shore? How will the turbines hold up in rough weather?
UMaine has studied these questions closely, according to Habib Dagher, director of the DeepCwind Consortium and Advanced Structures and Composites Center.
DeepCwind hopes to have a 100-turbine farm in the Gulf of Maine around 2020. The turbines would be anchored in an area that would have a minimal effect on the fishing industry. Testing on small-scale models has indicated that the turbines won’t have a problem holding up to high winds or rough seas.
More testing will take place at the Offshore Wind Laboratory leading up to the deployment of a one-third scale model floating wind turbine in April 2013. Just last week, Dagher received approval to place the test turbine about 2½ miles south of Monhegan Island, he said.
The test turbine will be built by Cianbro and assembled at Bath Iron Works before a tugboat tows it down the Kennebec River — at about 2 mph — to its new home off the island. The trip will take 10 hours, according to Dagher.
After testing, the project will be scaled up over the next 10 years, with bigger turbines and larger numbers, until the full-scale turbine farm is completed.
Dagher said he was pleased to see that the university’s wind development efforts were drawing international interest.