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Guest Column: The University of Maine and offshore wind energy

First published in Landings, August, 2013.

It seems wind energy is all the rage just now. There’s been a lot of activity in particular in the offshore wind arena. In recent weeks, I’ve been out talking to fishermen in the St. George region and it’s clear that there’s some confusion about the different offshore energy projects underway in the state.

I hope this column can help clarify the research related to offshore wind power that is taking place at the University of Maine. Fishermen and other stakeholders have posed good questions. Not all of those questions can be answered in this article.

Quite simply, UMaine researchers are trying to figure out the best way to harness the wind in hopes that the resulting power can contribute to a seemingly insatiable appetite for electricity on this planet. It’s a huge global challenge, the solution to which is going to be most effective if addressed locally. Maine’s most abundant energy source by far is offshore wind. The University’s offshore wind research program is aimed at designing offshore wind turbines suitable for Gulf of Maine conditions that can be manufactured in the state.

A few years back, the state Legislature decided to encourage exploration of offshore wind energy as part of a diversified electrical portfolio. Because Maine’s best wind energy occurs in deep water off the coast, one result of that policy was the identification of deep water offshore wind test sites, including one to the south of Monhegan Island. That site, about five square miles, is where the University of Maine has permission to conduct research for its offshore wind program.

The DeepCwind Consortium, a University of Maine-led, 35-member academic-industry consortium, was granted funding from the U.S. Department of Energy, National Science Foundation-Partnerships for Innovation, Maine Technology Institute, and others, to investigate how to design and build offshore wind turbines that could float in deep water. Up to now, most wind turbines have been located in shallow water where the turbines can be firmly anchored to the bottom.

The Consortium conducted trials and experiments in various settings and has developed a turbine, called VolturnUS, suitable for wind and sea conditions in the Gulf of Maine. VolturnUS is designed for manufacture here in Maine, to take advantage of the excellence in construction and engineering in this state as well as our high quality workforce. If successful, we can have a manufacturing center that employs people to build and sell these systems around the world.

The VolturnUS system is a semi-submersible platform with a concrete hull, a composite tower, and catenary moorings with drag embedment anchors. It’s pretty amazing to think that this thing floats, but it does. If you want to see it, there is a 1/8-scale model being tested this summer off the coast of Castine in Penobscot Bay. Deployed from Cianbro’s Brewer facility on June 2, and plugged into the grid in Castine on June 13, the unit is generating electricity and feeding it to the grid. But more importantly, it’s collecting data that will inform the full-scale design.

The current plan is to keep the 1/8 scale VolturnUS moored in Castine through the summer and collect performance data and make observations about environmental interactions. The University of Maine-led team is designing two, full-scale turbines to be built and installed at the Monhegan test site in 2017. The turbines will be connected to the grid by an undersea cable. Designers are discussing right now including a short cable to Monhegan, thereby allowing island residents to get power from the test turbines, with the rest of the electricity transmitted to the mainland. Options for laying a cable to the mainland are being explored; the decision on the final route will be based on the potential impact to the fishing industry, cost of installation, and the likelihood of the research goals being met.

The team working on this project includes the University of Maine’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center and its many partners, including UMaine’s School of Marine Sciences, Maine Sea Grant, Cianbro, Maine Maritime Academy, and more than 20 others. The environmental research group has, and will continue, to collect data on the environmental conditions at the test site and evaluate potential impacts to fish, birds, bats, marine mammals, and other animals. This group will also survey the proposed cable route.

So where’s the fishing industry in all of this? There are many questions that have come up in discussions with fishermen and other people who use the ocean. How large will the exclusion area be around the turbines? Where will the cable be located to connect them to the grid? What impacts might the devices and the cable have on lobster and fish? These are important questions that will be answered through the course of this research program.

Some of the experts involved in this research and I will be meeting with fishermen and others over the coming months. I encourage you to attend these public outreach meetings, which will be announced through the local media. You are also welcome to contact project staff, including me. I can be reached at and 207-581-1435.


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