BREWER, Maine — VolturnUS, the first offshore floating wind turbine in North America, hit the water Friday.
The University of Maine’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center unveiled its new turbine at Cianbro in Brewer, where the pieces were assembled and placed in the Penobscot River. A crane lowered the turbine into the water during a ceremony late Friday morning.
“If there’s one thing apparent to me today, it’s how hungry the people of Maine are for a celebration of success,” Cianbro Chairman Peter Vigue said at the beginning of Friday’s event, which was attended by members of Maine’s Congressional delegation, university and business officials.
Vigue said this project shows Maine is primed to be a leader in renewable energy production in the United States. The effort to get 20 gigawatts of offshore wind capability by 2030 could bring as much as $20 billion of private investment to Maine and create thousands of jobs, according to UMaine officials.
Maine has 156 gigawatts of offshore wind capacity within 50 miles of its coastline, and this is one of the first major visible steps after years of research toward harnessing that energy, according to composites center Director Habib Dagher, who has lead the project since its infancy
“We are energy rich, we just haven’t taken advantage of this energy richness that we have,” Dagher said.
The turbine design is called VolturnUS, a combination of the words volt, turn and U.S., a name that happens to be shared by Volturnus, the Roman god of the east wind.
The 65-foot turbine is a one-eighth scale model of the full-size version UMaine plans to place in the Gulf of Maine by 2016. By 2030, the university hopes to install a farm of roughly 170 huge, 6-megawatt turbines — each taller than the Washington Monument and with blades longer than the wingspan of a Boeing 747 — that would produce 5 gigawatts of electricity for the mainland. That’s roughly equal to the energy five nuclear power plants would provide.
The full-scale farm would be about 20 miles offshore, well out of sight, according to Dagher. Researchers have studied fishing grounds, migratory bird flight paths, shipping patterns and more in order to identify potential future homes for the wind farm that will have minimal effects to other industries and the environment, according to Dagher.
Once Penobscot River currents calm following a week of heavy rainfall, a crew from Maine Maritime Academy will tow the turbine down the river to the coast off Castine, where the university will test the turbine’s performance in the wind and waves. The waters off Castine are an ideal test site because the waves are about one-eighth the height of the waves in the Gulf of Maine, according to Dagher.
The unique concrete-and-composites-based turbine, the result of more than 5 years of research involving more than 30 agencies and businesses across the globe, will be hooked up to the electrical grid.
Some offshore wind energy efforts in Europe, which has been involved in offshore wind since 1991, have struggled, resulting in lofty price tags and high energy costs. Turbines at other offshore wind farms need to have their bases driven into the seafloor, an expensive process. If a floating turbine needs repairs, it can be towed back to shore, where work will be less costly, according to Dagher.
The more cost-effective floating wind farm approach should help keep electricity prices down to about 10 cents per kilowatt hour by 2020, which is competitive with other means of electricity production, Dagher said. Prior to that, the energy will be expensive by comparison. The concrete-composite turbine farms is expected to have a 100-year life span, compared to the 20- to 25-year life of current offshore European farms.