The $3.7 million federal award announced Monday to finish design work on Maine’s experimental offshore wind project will keep the state in the running for a new clean-energy industry, but obstacles remain to actually building a floating, deep-water wind farm.
The biggest hurdle is for the state to win a full $47 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, which would help it attract enough private investment to construct a pilot project with an estimated cost of $100 million. That decision could come in May.
“Clearly, some good news came out today,” said Jeremy Payne, executive director of the Maine Renewable Energy Association. “But we don’t know yet how good the news is.”
Payne and others were reacting Monday to word from U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King that the Department of Energy is committing additional money to the Maine Aqua Ventus project.
Led by a University of Maine partnership, Maine Aqua Ventus had been competing with demonstration projects in other states for a $47 million grant, but was passed over last year in favor of ventures in New Jersey, Virginia and Oregon. Instead, Maine got $3 million to continue engineering and design work.
Since then, each of the three winners has been unable to secure a power purchase agreement, and each has had trouble with cost and/or regulatory issues. Their failure to hit benchmarks means the $47 million grants have not been awarded. Last week, the energy department told King and Collins that those projects would receive extensions until May. It also said Aqua Ventus would get $3.7 million to help the successful development of a pilot wind farm off Monhegan. The department also gave $3.7 million to a competing alternative in Ohio.
“This extraordinary investment,” Collins and King said in a written statement, “is proof that the DOE recognizes what we have long known: That the Gulf of Maine is a tremendous resource for wind energy that could provide an affordable source of renewable energy directly to the country’s population centers on the East Coast, while creating thousands of new jobs in Maine and diversifying the state’s electricity supply.”
The award comes at a pivotal time. In 2011, the Norwegian energy giant Statoil proposed an experimental, $120 million floating wind farm off Boothbay Harbor. But the company left Maine after Gov. Paul LePage forced the renegotiation of its power purchase agreement in 2013, and is instead building the demonstration project in Scotland.
Statoil’s exit, and performance questions about Maine Aqua Ventus, dashed dreams of developing a multi-billion-dollar wind power industry off the Maine coast. In the meantime, other states and countries have been eclipsing Maine as research and development centers for the evolving technology, frustrating businesses that had hoped to supply goods and services.
In elevating the status of Maine Aqua Ventus, the DOE’s action may put Maine back in the game.
“What it shows is the DOE wants to keep this development going,” said Annette Bossler, a wind energy expert who lives in Bremen and operates Main(e) International Consulting LLC. “It keeps Maine on the map for floating offshore wind.”
Bossler, who works with wind developers in Europe and Japan, said investors want the best estimates for the cost of deploying new technology. The extra $3.7 million, she said, will allow Maine Aqua Ventus to refine costs. The prospect of winning the full $47 million grant, she said, also will be crucial to bringing private money to the project.
Maine Aqua Ventus is being developed by a for-profit spinoff that represents UMaine, Cianbro Corp. and Emera Inc. of Nova Scotia. In 2013, the partners launched a one-eighth-scale model of a floating turbine off Castine. The unit is made of advanced composite materials that fight corrosion and reduce weight. Its hull is made of concrete, which can be produced in Maine and has a longer life span in the ocean than steel.
The prototype, called Volturn US, generated a small amount of power and endured extreme sea and wind conditions during its testing. Now the challenge is to develop a full-size pilot wind farm in deep water off Monhegan Island. It would consist of two turbines, each with a capacity of 6 megawatts. Based on the availability of wind, the project could generate 43,000 megawatt-hours a year, enough to power 6,000 average homes.
The project won a 20-year power-purchase agreement from the Maine Public Utilities Commission.
Jake Ward, UMaine’s vice president for innovation and economic development, said Monday the $3.7 million will get the project “shovel ready” for bids to contractors. Over the past year, Ward said, the design team has reduced the weight of the floating hull. It has standardized and cut the number of components. These measures will make the pilot wind farm less expensive to build and to replicate on a broader scale.
Ward said he was still awaiting official notice and details from the energy department. But a letter from a top agency official indicates that each project will have until May 1 to meet additional milestones. Decisions about which of the five projects will advance is expected to be made by the DOE on May 31.
Ward said he assumes that means the five projects will be evaluated to determine which will get $47 million, which would pay roughly half the cost of construction.
“The DOE has to decide, based on its criteria, that one of the other three projects won’t go forward,” he said.
Monday’s news was followed closely by businesses that want to build components and offer services to an offshore wind industry. Maine has roughly two dozen companies, including Pittsfield-based Cianbro and SGC Engineering in Westbrook, that have experience and interest in offshore energy projects, according to Steve Van Vogt, president of Maine Marine Composites in Portland and head of the Maine Composites Alliance.
“For Maine’s supply chain, any activity on the East Coast is important,” he said.