VolturnUS 1:8, “the first offshore wind turbine in the Americas,” was deployed in Castine Harbor on June  2, 2013, by the University of Maine and its partners, Cianbro and Maine Maritime Academy.
VolturnUS 1:8, “the first offshore wind turbine in the Americas,” was deployed in Castine Harbor on June 2, 2013, by the University of Maine and its partners, Cianbro and Maine Maritime Academy.
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On January 14, on a 2-1 vote, the Public Utilities Commission approved a term sheet, outlining basic agreed-upon conditions, for the proposed Maine Aqua Ventus offshore wind energy pilot project off the island of Monhegan. That approval paves the way toward final approval of a deal to use fees levied on electric ratepayers to help finance further tests of the University of Maine's patent-pending Volturn US floating wind turbine technology.

The new design was first demonstrated with the launch of the 6-megawatt VolturnUS 1:8 turbine off Castine last June. The event marked the first time offshore wind electrons have come into the US grid.

According to the term sheet's conditions, Maine Aqua Ventus - a public-private consortium of 70 partners including UMaine, construction company Cianbro and Emera Maine (formerly Bangor Hydro) - will sell power to CMP for 23 cents per kilowatt hour. The PUC will still need to review the long-term contract that Maine Aqua Ventus works out with CMP before giving final approval.

Maine Aqua Ventus is currently competing with six other offshore wind projects for a $46.6 million Department of Energy (DOE) grant to build a two-turbine, 12-megawatt, floating deepwater offshore wind pilot project 2.5 miles south of Monhegan and 12 miles from the mainland, which could power approximately 6,500 homes. More importantly the pilot project aims to demonstrate to the world that Maine has a way to mass produce renewable energy at a potentially affordable cost - and demonstrate the potential to develop a very large scale 500 MW wind farm in the Gulf of Maine. The DOE is expected to award $46.6 million grants to up to three of the seven competing projects this spring, and the PUC's approval of the term sheet insured that Maine's project stayed in the running.

Gov. LePage and "Windmill Welfare"

Gov. LePage has been a staunch critic of wind power because it currently requires above-market rates. Under the Maine Aqua Ventus proposal, the cost would be about 14 cents above the current standard offer for residential homes. That translates to about 73 cents per month that would be added to the average homeowner's CMP bill.

In an interview with WGAN News Radio host Ethan Strimling on January 18, Gov. LePage, who has made scrutinizing the state's welfare programs for the poor a priority, said wind subsidies fell into the same category.

"The biggest corporate welfare in the country is subsidies to windmills, which I can't do anything about and I think that's an abomination, particularly when those windmills charge the ratepayers some of the highest electricity rates in the country," said LePage. "I find it appalling that they get these $300,000 to $400,000 subsidies for windmills irrespective of what they charge us, the ratepayers."

"The Henry Ford of Offshore Wind?"

According to the developers of the Maine Aqua Ventus project, the 73 to 75 cents a month that ratepayers will pay to support the offshore wind experiment is a small price to pay for an energy investment that could pay large dividends in the future.

"In some ways [the ratepayer fee] is an ugly number. It's an artificial number," said Dr. George Hart, co-founder of the Ocean Energy Institute, at a recent forum at the University of Southern Maine sponsored by the Energy and Energy Technology Council of Maine (E2Tech).

According to Hart, the above-market rates are due to the fact that there are large up-front costs associated with the initial stage of development and data gathering. While offshore wind technology is nothing new - Europe has been producing offshore wind for over 20 years - Hart said that the ultimate goal is for UMaine's floating wind turbine technology to create a cheap way to mass-produce the platforms and set the standard for offshore wind production around the world.

In Europe, offshore wind turbines are installed on fix-base platforms that are secured by driving 20-foot-diameter piles about 50 feet into the seabed like a nail into a piece of wood. The capital-intensive process typically involves hundreds of thousands of dollars a day just to rent the large jack-up barges needed for construction. UMaine's process doesn't need the expensive jack-up barges. The components are fabricated dockside, assembled, towed out to sea and moored to the seabed. Rather than steel, the design requires concrete and composites, which the developers say are cheap and can be manufactured in Maine. Under the terms of the Maine Aqua Ventus proposal, 50 percent of all building contracts will go to Maine-based businesses. The developers estimate that the platforms will last from 60 to 100 years, and they can be brought in every 20 years to be retrofitted and then sent back out to sea.

Hart said much of the credit for the design of the project goes to Professor Habib Dagher, founding director of the Advanced Structures and Composites Center, who has overseen UMaine's offshore wind development.

"I would say that what Habib and his team did for offshore wind is what Henry Ford did for the automobile," said Hart. "It's all about mass production."

Hart said he believed the electric rates could be cut in half once Maine's offshore wind reaches full production.

Plenty of Wind - "Costs Way Too Much Today"

In spite of the lean budget times, Dagher says offshore wind is an investment the state can't afford not to make.

As he noted in his E2Tech presentation, in 1998 energy costs made up five percent of a typical family's budget, but after 2008, that number went up to 20 percent. At the same time, Dagher said, there are 156 gigawatts of offshore wind within 50 miles of the coast of Maine, of which it only takes 2.4 GW to power the entire state. He estimates that nationally there's enough wind capacity to power the country four times over.

"The big challenge is that offshore wind costs way too much today," said Dagher. "We're trying to figure out a way to drive the costs down. Traditional forms of electricity will go up. Somewhere in the 2020s, we hope these two lines will intersect ... and drive the costs of offshore wind down."

Currently, Dagher says, the developers are entering phase three of their project, which involves finishing the design for the 12-megawatt Monhegan turbines. If awarded the $46.6 million DOE grant, the consortium will begin construction in 2015 and connect to the grid by 2017. By the 2020s, the consortium's goal is to build a 500 MW wind farm 20 miles offshore, with 83 6-megawatt turbines spaced 4,000 feet apart. Running at 45-percent capacity, the developers estimate it would generate about 2 terawatt hours of energy, which is about 16 to 17 percent of the state's annual usage. Currently, the state has set a goal of achieving 5 gigawatts of offshore wind power by 2030.
"If you take the amount of concrete in the Hoover Dam and use that same amount of concrete to build floating Volturnus wind turbines, we would produce four times the amount of electricity as the Hoover Dam," said Dagher. "But how many places can you put a Hoover Dam? Our vision here is placing the Hoover Dams offshore using this Volturnus technology beyond cities, beyond the horizon, powering cities across the country and the world."

Electrifying Maine's Energy with Wind?

Although New England power plants have largely transitioned from oil to natural gas, which generates about half of the region's electric power, Emera Maine Chief Operating Officer Gerry Chasse says Mainers shouldn't think the new fuel will solve all of the state's energy problems. As part of the "omnibus energy bill" passed last year, the PUC is authorized to collect fees from ratepayers to buy up to $75 million annually in natural gas pipeline capacity, with the goal of spurring private investment in new pipelines into the state. But as Chasse notes, 33,000 customers of 800,000 in the state have access to natural gas, a number he expects to grow to 100,000 over the next 15 years. He said it would likely be extremely expensive to bring natural gas to everyone.

"Natural gas will go to some of the anchor businesses and industry that needs it to succeed, and there will be customers in highly populated areas and along those routes that are extending natural gas to paper mills, but the vast majority of the population in Maine will not see natural gas," said Chasse.

For residential customers, Emera Maine has been promoting the use of electric air-source heat pumps, which extract heat from the air and compress it. According to Efficiency Maine, heat pumps are the third most inexpensive heat source and are about one third the cost of conventional oil heat.

Chasse said that Mainers spend $675 million a year on heating oil and $200 million annually on electricity, but Mainers could potentially save $400 million per year using heat pumps and still have $75 million left over for heating hot water and the 10 percent of heating that the heat pump can't do economically.

While the intermittency of wind can pose a challenge, Chasse said conventional heating appliances like oil furnaces could be utilized to supplement the heat pumps when the wind isn't blowing.

Hart noted that overdependence on natural gas for heating and electricity has also caused electric and heating costs to spike during peak winter demand. It's a problem he believes offshore wind can address.

"Offshore wind is a perfectly tuned solution to that problem because of those high winter heating days ... it's precisely at that time the turbines will be cranking out maximum power," said Hart.

And, according to Hart, natural gas can be a valuable bridge fuel to renewable energy sources like wind. As new extraction technologies, such as the controversial practice of hydraulic fracking, have brought energy prices down, this has also lowered the cost of other materials like concrete, which can be a benefit for offshore wind manufacturers. However, Hart says the low prices are likely temporary as facilities are increasingly being built to liquify natural gas and export it around the world.

"I'm convinced," said Hart, "that generations in the future will say, 'Why why why did they burn precious fuels like natural gas and fuel oil for heat?' That's an unwise use for energy, but another term would be 'dumb.' It's like taking $100 bills out of the safe and burning them to heat your home."

The Future of Offshore Wind

The application process for the lucrative DOE grant has been mired in controversy ever since a $120-million agreement with Norwegian energy giant Statoil to build an offshore wind pilot project off Boothbay was rescinded after pressure by Governor LePage and Republican legislators last spring. The bidding process was reopened in order to allow Maine Aqua Ventus to submit a competing bid. In response, Statoil pulled out of Maine and is now moving ahead to establish an offshore wind project in Scotland. In the aftermath of the partisan battle, some observers assumed the move to reopen the bidding process for Maine Aqua Ventus was a cynical attempt by wind power opponents to pull the plug on Maine's investment in offshore wind. However, the developers at UMaine say they are confident that Maine's application will win the DOE grant that will allow the project to move forward.

"We have a plan to win it," said Dagher. "We feel very good about our technology because we're the only team of seven teams that has a floating turbine operating in the United States waters."

Dagher noted that the other six applicants are using technology already used in Europe.

"There's no sense replicating the same thing over here and trying to figure out if we're going to get a different result," he added. "We're the only team, as far as we know, that has a unique technology that has never been built before that has a chance of driving costs down."

If successful, the developers say, offshore wind has the potential to be a boon to Maine's economy both in terms of power generation and manufacturing. Hart estimated that the annual revenues from a 500 MW wind farm would be $320 million a year in power sold, which is equivalent to the whole lobstering industry in Maine. Eventually he said the annual revenue would potentially reach $302 billion, not including the number of jobs it would require for the construction and maintenance of turbines and platforms.

However, at a cost of $3 billion for the 500 MW wind farm and $30 billion to reach the state's set goal of 5 GW by 2030, he stressed the need to act quickly while interest rates and conventional energy prices are relatively low. Until then, it will be a matter of proving to the world whether UMaine and Aqua Ventus can be a major player in the global energy market.