ORONO, Maine — Maine’s floating wind power advocates are sounding the alarm over legislation that would push a two-turbine test site farther away from Monhegan Island, saying that the shift would sink the decade-long push to draw power from the untapped Gulf of Maine winds.
The bill, introduced by Sen. Dana Dow, R-Waldoboro, would bar wind turbines within 10 miles of Monhegan Island.
“If we had to move this site now, everything is gone — the investments disappear,” said Habib Dagher, director of the University of Maine’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center.
In 2009, the state Department of Conservation identified three sites for testing and demonstrating ocean energy technology including offshore wind. The selection process involved reviewing the entire coast of Maine within State waters and involved repeated meetings with residents and fishermen.
In the years that followed, UMaine monitored the site and collected wind and wave data, recorded bird flight patterns, identified fishing grounds and more in preparation for testing new technology.
In 2013 the Department of Energy selected a UMaine proposal to test a pair of 6 megawatt floating concrete wind turbines, each about 520 feet tall. The project is just beginning the state and federal process to obtain permits, which should be secured over the next year, with
Construction of the turbines’ concrete hulls would start in the spring of 2018. The hulls would be built in Hampden before being towed down the Penobscot River to Searsport, where the towers, turbines and rotors would be added. By the fall of 2019, the two hulls would be towed through Penobscot Bay and installed at the test site.
But none of this will happen if Dow’s bill becomes law, Dagher said.
The Energy Utilities and Technology Committee is expected to hold a hearing on the bill and the university will be among the groups testifying in opposition, according to Jake Ward, UMaine’s vice president for innovation and economic development.
If the test site moves farther out into the Gulf of Maine, the research and data collected over years at Monhegan would become useless. Also, anything farther than 3 miles off the island becomes federal jurisdiction, and would require an entirely new approval process that could take up to five more years.
Such a delay would likely scare away investors, according to the university. The relocation also would eliminate UMaine’s shot at a $40 million Department of Energy grant to see the test project through. UMaine needs to have the turbines hooked up to the grid by 2019 in order to be eligible for that money.
The test site plans have met resistance from some of Monhegan’s 65 year round residents, summer residents and visitors. Some have speculated that the university might try to make the test site a permanent one, but organizers insist that isn’t true and that state statutes wouldn’t allow it to happen. State law only allows for short extensions to the test phase. A group of residents recently raised $40,000 to try to drive the test site away.
The Monhegan site is a trial run for a much larger floating wind farm in a yet-to-be-determined part of the Gulf of Maine at least 10 miles from shore and inhabited islands.
In 2008, the Maine Ocean Energy Task Force set the goal of producing 5 gigawatts of offshore wind power by 2030 — roughly the amount produced by five nuclear power plants. Maine currently uses about 2.4 gigawatts of electricity each year, meaning the state could export some of the energy produced by offshore wind turbines.
“We’re at the cusp. We can almost feel the opportunity in front of us,” Dagher said.
“This is a project that could transform the future of our state and make us a worldwide leader in this emerging industry,” he added.
Many European nations already are delving into offshore wind development, though in most instances those turbines are in shallower waters and sit on pylons driven into the seabed. A Danish developer recently won a bid to build two large wind farms off the coast of Germany without any government subsidy, according to the New York Times. That news has been lauded as a signal that commercial offshore wind farms can be competitive with other energy sources.
In the wake of its Fukushima nuclear power disaster, Japan is putting its own floating turbines in the water.
Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.