January 23, 2012

Offshore wind projects touted as job creators

By Susan M. Cover scover@mainetoday.com
State House Bureau

AUGUSTA -- The state's economy could grow by 15,000 jobs during the next 20 years if Mainers embrace offshore wind projects, a University of Maine professor said Sunday.

click image to enlarge

University of Maine engineering professor Habib Dagher discusses offshore wind project Sunday at the University of Maine at Augusta.

Staff photo by Andy Molloy

Habib Dagher, a professor of civil/structural engineering, said a $20 billion effort to build a wind farm 20 miles off shore would allow Maine to sell electricity to neighboring states and make the state less dependent on foreign oil.

"It's really important that we diversify in Maine," he said. "The bottom line is the uncertainty we face in the future."

Dagher came to the University of Maine at Augusta as part of the Forum on the Future series organized by the UMA College of Arts and Sciences and the UMA Senior College. About 60 people gathered in UMA's Jewett Auditorium for the talk, which was followed by a panel discussion.

Dagher said Maine families spend an average of $10,000 a year on energy costs, putting out an average of $4,000 on oil to heat their homes and $5,000 a year to put gas in two cars. The last $1,000 goes to electricity, he said. The problem in Maine is the cost of oil and gas, not the cost of electricity, which is the lowest in New England, he said.

By expanding options to off-shore wind, Maine residents could switch to electric heat in their homes and, eventually, electric cars, he said.

The professor outlined the basics of a project he's spearheading at the university that calls for putting a prototype turbine off Monhegan Island next year. The turbine would be assembled at Bath Iron Works, floated down the Kennebec River and then out to sea, he said. Eventually, a wind farm is planned for 20 miles off the coast, where it can maximize better winds and be far enough away so it can't be viewed from shore, he said.

Scientists at the university are studying the possible impacts on wildlife, including birds and whales, and the effects on the state's fishing industry, he said. The initial effort is being funded by a U.S. Department of Energy grant.

Dagher said Maine will need to find ways to lower the cost of offshore electricity so it is competitive with current prices. Developers can learn from Europe, which began building wind farms in the 1990s, to make it competitive with the natural gas that now generates most of our electricity, he said.

As it is now, Maine sends $5 billion a year out of state to pay for oil and gasoline, much of which could be kept in state if Mainers are willing to diversify their energy portfolio. With uncertain oil and gas prices, the state needs to look for other options, he said.

"You don't want to keep all your eggs in one basket," he said.

Susan Cover - 620-7015


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