A small scale test version of Maine's floating wind turbines.

A small scale test version of Maine’s floating wind turbines.

This past summer, the U.S. Department of Energy announced that the University of Maine, along with two other projects nationally, were eligible to receive up to $40 million more in funding to build full-scale demonstrations of offshore wind technology.

The two University of Maine test turbines will be installed near Monhegan Island, whereas the other full scale demonstration projects will take place in the waters of Lake Erie near Cleveland, and off the coast of Atlantic City, New Jersey.

Each of the projects employs technology that makes it faster and cheaper to install off shore wind farms, but only the University of Maine project uses innovative floating wind turbines that can be deployed in deeper waters. The innovation could make Maine among the world’s leaders in offshore wind development, bringing major investments and creating a new industry.

But the new administration under President-elect Donald Trump could cut the promised funding for offshore wind power. On the campaign trail, Trump pledged to slash Department of Energy funding for clean energy research.

World class engineering

The Maine project named New England Aqua Ventus I, builds on the recent success of the university’s DeepCwind Consortium Research Program. Two years ago, researchers deployed a 1:8 smaller scale version of a floating turbine platform in Penobscot Bay near Castine, Maine.

The hull and turbine were tested for nearly 18 months, revealing that the prototype could withstand 9-foot waves, the equivalent of a full-size platform bearing the brunt of a 70-foot wave.

For more than five years, University of Maine researchers evaluated the test site for the current full scale project, which is located in state waters about three miles south of Monhegan Island. Their research has produced streams of data on oceanic, ecological, and geophysical conditions.

“Monhegan is a historic island,” said Ann Acheson, a University of Maine researcher who recently conducted a study on offshore wind support among state residents. “Though less populated, it’s a very special place. Of all the islands in Maine, having turbines there may have been iffy, but the project has pretty good support,”.

James Acheson, another University of Maine researcher and one of the key contributors to the Aqua Ventus offshore wind project, says there is an important distinction to be made between experimental wind turbines and fully-fledged offshore wind farms, which can cost billions of dollars.

On building full scale wind farms, he says, “We can do it, we have the market, but it will take someone with an awful lot of funding.”

Why Federal funding is so important

Enter the Department of Energy. The University of Maine received $3 million in May 2014 for the testing of the small scale wind turbine and hull off the coast of Castine. The university was designated as an alternate on the waitlist for supplementary funding. Other leading projects had already gotten a total of about $6.7 million to make their concepts construction-ready.

Last November, the University of Maine received additional funding, but remained on the program’s waitlist until the DOE’s announcement earlier this year.

The Energy Department chose the University of Maine alongside Atlantic City Windfarm in New Jersey and Lake Erie Energy Development Corporation. Each entrant is using a different platform foundation for their wind turbines.

The New Jersey project will use a “twisted jacket foundation,” with three legs twisted around a central column. The Lake Erie project will use another type of foundation called a “mono bucket,” which is a cylindrical base on the turbine that is open at the bottom. The open bottom sinks into the lakebed, and then the water is pumped out from inside, allowing water pressure alone to hold the turbine in place.

However, the University of Maine is the only offshore wind project of the three experimenting with floating wind turbines, which allow them to access more than 60 percent of potential offshore wind resources, which often includes wind speeds in ocean areas too deep for conventional foundations. The design uses a concrete hull and tower made from composites.

“One of of [our] selling points is that the project’s components would be manufactured within the state using modular tow,” Ann Acheson said. “With land based systems, anchors are much more expensive to construct.”

In order to receive continued disbursements, the university must meet certain benchmarks over three review periods, according to the DOE.

In each review period, each of the three projects will have the opportunity to receive another $13.3 million, with additional review between each funding phase to determine whether the department will continue or stop funding their projects.

Dealing with local opposition

At the local level, the university has been working to effectively counter the nascent anti-turbine movement in some of the state’s towns. Some conservationists are worried about potential ecological harm from the wind farm, while fishermen are concerned that it might disrupt daily life on the job.

The strongest opposition comes from coastal residents who fear a visual change to the “sense of place” and natural surroundings they have known all their lives.

To address this, the university did a rendering of what it would look like to have wind turbines floating offshore. Using virtual reality, the study allowed both residents and tourists to walk around different parts of the island to see what the wind turbines would look and sound like.

Much of the debate revolves around questions related to self-interest. Acheson remembers attending a town meeting where locals echoed the sentiment, “What are we as a town going to get out of it?”

In contrast, many residents of Monhegan Island, who face some of the highest energy prices in the country, are hopeful that the wind project will bring a much cheaper source of power. Now, they want to know what happens next.

See also:

Vocal minority could derail Maine’s offshore wind future – as coastal residents fear impact on way of life