May 30, 2013

Floating wind turbine installation to make history Friday

By Tux Turkel
Staff Writer

Hundreds of people are expected on the banks of the Penobscot River in Brewer on Friday morning to see and celebrate history in the making, as North America’s first floating offshore wind turbine is lowered into the water.

click image to enlarge

A team from the University of Maine at Orono tests a turbine outside their laboratory in April. The floating turbine will be placed in the ocean off the coast of Castine this month, following Friday's initial placement in the Penobscot River.

Photo courtesy of Habib Dagher / University of Maine

Within two weeks, the unit will be towed 30 miles downriver to a mooring site in 70 feet of water off Dice Head in Castine, then plugged into Maine’s electricity grid with an undersea cable.

The project, called VolturnUS, is 65 feet tall, one-eighth the scale of a full-size floating turbine. Its output will be only 20 kilowatts, enough to power four average homes. But its potential impact, over time, could be enormous.

If the technology is proven in the coming months, it could kick-start a local industry to support a full-size wind park, with hundreds of turbines with rotor diameters larger than a football field floating 10 miles off the coast.

They would tap the robust breezes in the Gulf of Maine to help power New England, at a cost that’s competitive with other energy sources beginning in 2020. Advocates say a deep-water wind power industry could create thousands of jobs and $20 billion in private investment by 2030.

The prototype will be launched at the Eastern Manufacturing Facility of Cianbro Corp., which built the unit. Several government and business leaders are set to speak at the event. 

Five years of research and development, led by the University of Maine-led DeepCwind Consortium, has brought the vision to this point. But several obstacles stand in the way of VolturnUS becoming the catalyst for a Maine-based, offshore energy revolution.

First, it must prove its design concept. Rather than using steel components assembled at sea, the $1 million prototype was put together on land with advanced concrete and composite materials, to fight corrosion and reduce weight. Data from two dozen sensors will help show whether full-scale units can handle the harsh ocean environment and generate power for many years.

Second, VolturnUS must beat out competitors for government money. It is among seven projects nationally that won $4 million each in federal grants last year to help develop utility-scale offshore wind technologies. It’s vying for a follow-up award of as much as $50 million early next year for a project off Monhegan Island.

The $96 million pilot project would feature two, six-megawatt turbines and generate enough electricity for 6,000 homes in 2016.

One of the competitors is the Norwegian energy giant Statoil, which has begun a new testing phase for its Hywind Maine project off Boothbay Harbor. Statoil launched the world’s first full-scale floating turbine in the North Sea in 2009. It’s using data from the experiment to refine its $120 million project in Maine.

Hywind Maine would have four three-megawatt turbines on floating spar buoys anchored to the seabed in 460 feet of water.

Third, VolturnUS must have a contract to sell its power, at rates that will support costs. Project officials are trying to negotiate an agreement with New England utilities in the range of 14 cents per kilowatt-hour.

Statoil already has a power purchase agreement, for 27 cents per kilowatt-hour, that was approved last year by Maine’s Public Utilities Commission. It won out over the objections of Gov. Paul LePage, who said the rate — more than three times what Maine homeowners pay for energy — is too high and the PUC’s agreement with Statoil doesn’t promise enough economic benefits to the state.

Both rates are for demonstration projects. The federal government wants commercial-scale projects that can generate power at 10 cents per kilowatt-hour in 2020, a rate that’s expected to be on par with natural gas and other sources.

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