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Wind Power Plans Pick Up Speed in the Gulf of Maine

Technological advancement in the realm of offshore wind energy has sped up in recent years. Newer designs tend to be larger in geographic as well as physical size. Companies are searching for ever more efficient and innovative turbines and anchoring systems, leading to confusion among the public and altered plans before governmental bodies. This month Landings begins a new series examining the evolving world of offshore wind energy development.

Block Island Wind Farm is the first offshore wind energy project to go online in the U.S. It began producing power in 2016. Photo courtesy of Bloomberg News.

History in Maine The first wind farm in Maine was constructed at Mars Hill in Aroostock County in 2006. Funded and operated by First Wind LLC, the development featured 28 wind turbines producing 1.5 megawatts (MW) of electricity each. After the successful construction of Mars Hill, new wind power project applications came fast and furious afterward. By 2017, 16 wind farms of various sizes were operating in Maine. In January 2018, Governor Paul LePage declared a moratorium on new wind power construction in western and coastal Maine. In February, 2019, Governor Janet Mills rescinded the moratorium. Maine’s wind energy capacity on land is significant and its many wind power developments place it ahead of its New England neighbors. The winds that blow over the Gulf of Maine, however, are exponentially more powerful than those over the land. In 2012, Senator Angus King termed the Gulf of Maine the “Saudi Arabia of wind energy.”

First steps In 2009, the state’s Ocean Energy Task Force completed its report on the ocean energy resources of the Gulf of Maine. The Task Force looked at the energy that might be produced through tidal, wave and wind energy in the Gulf. Its report stated, “…by far the largest and most capable of supporting a low carbon energy future that is largely decoupled from foreign disruption are the great winds which sweep across the Gulf of Maine. These winds are one of the great untapped energy resources on earth and hold the potential to supply a significant portion of Maine’s energy needs.” The report called for Maine to produce 5,000 MW of offshore wind electricity by 2030. Prior to the report’s release, Governor Baldacci’s Maine Offshore Energy Demonstration Area Siting Initiative had already identified specific areas in Maine waters that could be used for an offshore wind power demonstration project. One such area, three miles off Monhegan Island, was designated as a “Maine Offshore Wind Energy Research Center” to be used by the University of Maine as a research and development site. The University of Maine, in collaboration with private companies, nonprofit organizations and other universities, established the DeepCwind Consortium in 2009 with $7.1 million in funding from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the first of multiple federal grants to the project. The Consortium’s aim is to establish Maine as a leader in offshore wind development, specifically focused on the design and deployment of floating offshore turbines.

Enter the Norwegians The work of the Ocean Energy Task Force set the stage for a research and innovation pilot project in state waters and for commercial ocean wind energy development through a project in federal waters. In response to the latter, the Norwegian energy company Statoilin 2010 submitted a bid in response to a request for proposals to develop a $120 million floating wind farm called Hywind in a site 12 miles off Boothbay Harbor. The project comprised four 3-MW floating wind turbines located in 460 feet of water. Statoil negotiated a power purchase agreement that was approved by the Maine Public Utilities Commission (PUC). Then, in 2013, Governor Paul LePage threatened to veto a comprehensive energy bill if the PUC did not reopen the bidding process. Statoil decided to cancel the Maine project and later turned its attention to a $250 million test project in Scotland. That project, Hywind Scotland, became the world’s first commercial floating wind farm and began generating electricity in 2017.

The University of Maine returns The withdrawal of Statoil gave the University of Maine a new opportunity to reprise its application for a wind power test project in Maine waters. In 2013 the University tested its first floating turbine, called VolturnUS. The 1/8-scale model was situated off Castine, connected to the electrical grid, and operated for 18 months. Based on the success of the pilot, Maine Aqua Ventus, LLC was formed to design and construct a full-scale version in the test area off Monhegan Island. That project is now called New England Aqua Ventus. In 2014 the PUC negotiated a twenty-year power agreement with Maine Aqua Ventus for electricity produced at the Monhegan site. However, in 2018, the PUC voted unanimously to reopen the contract, citing lower energy costs due to cheap natural gas. The vote suspended the project’s construction indefinitely. As first proposed, the Maine Aqua Ventus project was two 6-MW wind turbines built on the University’s floating concrete hulls. Now the project, renamed New England Aqua Ventus I, is a pilot project comprising a single 10 to 12-MW wind turbine affixed to a floating semisubmersible concrete hull designed by the Advanced Structures and Composites Center at the University of Maine. The project has received considerable financial support from the DOE. In late 2019, the University of Maine received a $1.4 million grant from the Department to design an ultra-lightweight concrete floating hull fitted with technology first developed by NASA to dampen vibrations in rockets. In August, two private firms, Diamond Offshore Wind, a subsidiary of the Mitsubishi Corp., and RWE Renewables, joined the University on the project. The two companies will invest $100 million in the project’s construction and help demonstrate the technology at full scale.

FILE - This Friday, Sept. 20, 2013 file photo shows the University of Maine's prototype wind turbine generator off the coast of Castine, Maine. A proposal before the Maine Legislature in 2017 would prevent the state from permitting an offshore wind energy project in the vicinity of Monhegan Island, about 12 nautical miles off of Maine's mainland and known as a home to artists, seasonal residents and lobster fishermen. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File)

Elsewhere in New England Meanwhile, other New England states have made significant progress toward attaining their renewable energy goals. In 2018 Massachusetts established a partnership with Vineyard Wind to build an 800-MW wind farm 15 miles off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard by 2021. Rhode Island selected Deepwater Wind, which successfully constructed a 30-MW pilot project off Block Island, operating since 2016, to build a second, 400-MW project. Connecticut also selected Deepwater to build a 200-MW wind farm off its coast by 2023. In 2018 New York asked for bids to create 800 MW of wind energy off Long Island; the state’s goal is 2,400 megawatts by 2030. New Jersey also plans to generate 3,500 MW by 2030.

Currently in Maine Upon inauguration in 2019, Governor Mills acted quickly to restart Maine’s efforts to expand its renewable resource energy base. In June, 2019, she signed bills that established the Maine Climate Council, which is charged with developing action plans to reduce Maine greenhouse gas emissions by 45% by 2030 and 80% by 2050. She increased the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard from 40 percent today to 80% by 2030 and a goal of 100% renewable energy by 2050. Gov. Mills promptly signed legislation that required the PUC to approve the contract for New England Aqua Ventus. She established the Maine Offshore Wind Initiative, a state-based initiative to identify opportunities for offshore wind development in the Gulf of Maine and ancillary industries and job creation. The state also agreed to become part of a Gulf of Maine Intergovernmental Regional Task Force on offshore wind, with New Hampshire and Massachusetts, organized by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM). The Task Force goal is to identify potential opportunities for renewable energy leasing and development on the Outer Continental Shelf in the Gulf of Maine.

Next month: The mismatch between environmental review and offshore wind power research and development

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