ORONO, Maine — The University of Maine team working to harness the Gulf of Maine’s winds, bringing energy from the ocean to Maine’s shore, received a boost from the U.S. Department of Energy on Wednesday.

The department awarded $4 million to the Advanced Structures and Composites Center for the engineering, design and permitting phase of its offshore floating turbine project — one of seven projects in the nation selected to receive the funding. The Energy Department reviewed the proposals of more than 70 other teams that sought funding for their wind energy projects.

That initial boost could lead to a much larger award from the Energy Department, as the offshore wind energy team will move on to compete for one of three awards of up to $47 million, over four years, to help the university build and install a pair of 6-megawatt turbines off Monhegan Island by 2017, creating an operational wind farm called Aqua Ventus I. The awards from the Energy Department would be boosted further by more than $42 million in private industry investments, bringing the total that could stem from this initial award to $93 million.

“The funding announced today is the key to the ignition of one of the most exciting projects ever undertaken by the state of Maine,” said Habib Dagher, director of the composites center and the man at the helm of the offshore wind project.

“It’s a great day for the state of Maine, it’s a great day for the University of Maine and it’s a great day for everybody who worked on this proposal for the DOE,” Dagher added during a press conference Wednesday afternoon.

The Energy Department announced the competition last year as part of an effort to launch an effective offshore wind industry in the U.S., according to a department press release.

The UMaine team responded in June with a 1,200-page report highlighting its plans and the results of its research so far.

A dozen representatives from UMaine and some of the more than 30 businesses involved in the project traveled to Washington, D.C., in July, where they were questioned in a room with no windows by Energy Department officials and industry experts.

“It certainly was a frightening, stressful time for all of us,” Dagher said.

Dagher’s group was given a lengthy list of questions, which they had two hours to answer in front of a panel. After that, a group of anonymous energy experts from across the country, who watched the proceedings on a live video feed, submitted questions of their own by computer. Apparently the panel liked what it heard.

Sen. Susan Collins called Dagher on Wednesday afternoon to inform him that his UMaine team won the Energy Department award.

“This extremely important announcement is a vital step that could eventually help harness the vast potential of deepwater offshore wind energy and lead to the potential creation of some 20,000 new jobs,” Collins said.

Collins has been a staunch supporter of UMaine’s offshore wind project since its early stages, Dagher said.

“In all my years at the University of Maine, I have never seen one of our elected officials work so skillfully and tirelessly to achieve a singular goal,” Dagher said. “Sen. Collins saw what we saw — a project with potential to generate vast amounts of clean energy and to create good jobs and spark economic development — and she made it happen.”

In June 2010, Collins invited U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu to the composites center to learn about the floating turbine project. Collins already had helped secure about $25 million in federal funding for the offshore wind initiative in previous years, according to her office.

Maine offshore wind efforts took two of the seven Energy Department awards. A project led by Connecticut-based Statoil North America also received an award. That group plans to deploy four 3-megawatt turbines on floating spar buoy structures off Boothbay Harbor.

After one year, the Energy Department will check back with the award recipients to see how they’ve progressed with planning, designing and permitting their projects. Based on what it finds, the department will select three of the seven to receive the larger investments to move forward with construction and installation.

A one-eighth-scale turbine is located behind UMaine’s composites center for the next couple of months to test sensors and other systems that will be used on the full-scale turbines.

After testing is completed on UMaine’s prototype, a pair of 6-megawatt turbines will be installed at the Aqua Ventus I site by 2017. By 2020, the plan is to have a larger-scale commercial wind farm with 80 turbines in a 4-by-8-mile space 20 miles offshore, over the horizon and neither visible nor audible from shore. By 2030, the goal is to have a full-scale wind farm of about 170 turbines, each taller than the Washington Monument, operational and bringing 5 gigawatts, or the equivalent of about five nuclear power plants, of wind energy to Maine’s shore.

Dagher stressed that the energy, while expensive at first, will become comparable to costs of other forms of energy — at around 10 cents per kilowatt-hour — by 2020. He said he pictures a day when cars run on and homes are heated and lit by electricity created by the strong winds just off Maine’s coast, helping to stem Maine’s dependence on foreign oil.

Maine lawmakers, including Sens. Olympia Snowe and Collins and Reps. Mike Michaud and Chellie Pingree, offered congratulations to the University of Maine and lauded the potential of the project after the announcement of the award.

“The United States has tremendous untapped clean energy resources, and it is important for us to develop technologies that will allow us to utilize those resources in ways that are economically viable,” said U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu. “Today’s announcement of awards to the first offshore wind projects in the U.S. paves the way to a cleaner, more sustainable and more diverse domestic energy portfolio that develops every source of American energy.”