Gov. Janet Mills and two top advisers are participating in a trip to Scotland in early March that is designed to showcase the country’s expertise in developing and hosting offshore wind energy projects, including one that once was planned for Maine.
The trip is aimed at sharing knowledge and contacts in a region that boasts the greatest amount of installed offshore wind capacity in the world, the first commercial-scale floating wind turbines and an even larger floating wind project under construction.
Mills, along with Governor’s Energy Office Director Dan Burgess and Office of Policy Innovation and the Future Director Hannah Pingree, will travel with officials from North Carolina, Virginia and other states on the United Kingdom-sponsored tour, based largely in the Scottish capital of Edinburgh and around the port city of Aberdeen.
In a recent statement to the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, Mills said she wanted to see the industry firsthand and learn about how the U.K. is handling issues including port facilities and supply chain support, stakeholder engagement and regulatory policies. Those lessons will be useful as offshore wind interest in the United States expands into the Gulf of Maine.
“But perhaps most importantly, I want to convey to them that our state is deeply interested in embracing offshore wind as part of our effort to create jobs, diversify and strengthen our economy, create a sustainable source of clean energy, and fight climate change,” she said.
Since Mills took office last year, she has made clear her intentions to restore Maine’s position as a leader on renewable energy and climate issues. That aspiration was put on hold during the administration of former Gov. Paul LePage, who opposed above-market costs for renewable power.
LePage was instrumental in prompting the Norwegian energy conglomerate formerly called Statoil to abandon plans in 2013 for a floating wind demonstration project off the Maine coast. The 30-megawatt, five-turbine project, called Hywind, eventually was built off Scotland in 2017.
Mills and the entourage won’t be able to visit Hywind Scotland, however, due to its distance 15 miles offshore and winter sea conditions, according to officials at the British Embassy who are coordinating the trip. But they will meet with representatives from the former Statoil, now called Equinor, as well as the private developer of the Kincardine Wind project, a 50-megawatt floating wind farm that will be the world’s largest when it’s due to begin operation later this year.
They also are expected to tour the Levenmouth Demonstration Turbine, a large, offshore wind research and testing facility in Fife, a coastal area of Scotland.
SCOTLAND A MODEL FOR MAINE
Offshore wind farms have helped power Europe for decades, but those ventures mostly involve turbines set on towers driven into nearshore seabeds. The current challenge in offshore energy is to design turbine support platforms that can be anchored in deep water 10 to 20 miles offshore, out of sight of land and in areas where winds are stronger and steadier.
That’s the focus of research in Maine, with its deepwater coast.
The University of Maine and its Maine Aqua Ventus partners have been trying since 2014 to get a pair of their patented, semi-submersible platforms in the waters off Monhegan Island. The offshore wind energy partnership, which also includes Pittsfield-based Cianbro Corp., initially wanted to use two 6-megawatt turbines, which could generate enough electricity to power 6,000 homes.
Maine Aqua Ventus now wants to beef up its platform design to accommodate a single 9.5-megawatt turbine, reflecting the industry’s technological evolution to bigger, more-powerful units. The rotor diameter would be 570 feet, compared to 495 feet for the 6-megawatt option. The hub or center of the rotor blade would stand 360 feet above the waterline, compared with 328 feet.
This new size is similar to the turbines being installed in Scotland, at the Kincardine site.
The latest target date for the Monhegan project is 2022, seven years later than originally estimated.
Finally getting the project floating in 2022 would help prove the viability of the UMaine design, just as the global floating wind industry is poised for growth. That could create a market to build the reinforced concrete hulls in Maine, as well as license the technology for construction elsewhere.
UMaine’s bid to be a player in the emerging offshore wind industry has suffered repeated setbacks. Most notably, it was hobbled by LePage and his appointed chairman of the state Public Utilities Commission, Mark Vannoy. Despite that, Maine Aqua Ventus has received federal grants and, under Mills and new leadership at the PUC, regained an opportunity to become the first commercial-scale floating wind farm in the United States.
Other states haven’t been idle during this period, however, and the center of gravity in New England’s nascent offshore wind industry has shifted to ports such as New Bedford, Massachusetts, and New London, Connecticut. This month, for instance, Connecticut officials said 460 construction jobs will be created for a $157 million redevelopment of the State Pier in New London as a hub for the industry, paid in part through a partnership with utilities set to buy the power.
OPPORTUNITIES AND UNCERTAINTIES
The overseas trip will help Maine officials learn more about the investment needs, port infrastructure and vessel requirements to support an offshore wind industry, according to the British Embassy, with a particular emphasis on floating technology.
An open question now is whether Maine ports have lost out to southern New England for the potential to become an industry hub. But Burgess, the Governor’s Energy Office director, said he is confident new opportunities will emerge for Maine. He pointed to recent assessments from experts that the region will need multiple ports to provide services.
Burgess also said that, despite the state’s reputation as unwelcoming to wind energy during the LePage years, developers are again eyeing Maine.
“I can say that there’s interest in offshore wind here,” he said. “If lease areas are identified that make sense, I think interest will follow.”
Mills and her advisers are making the journey during a period of great anticipation and potential opportunity along the East Coast, but also one of uncertainty and challenges.
America’s first commercial-scale farm, the five-turbine Block Island Wind, began operating off Rhode Island in 2016. That ushered in a new wave of multibillion-dollar projects set to rise up along the East Coast of the United States, from the Carolinas to Massachusetts.
But suddenly, that momentum is threatened.
Development in federal waters needs permits from the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. The industry had been closely watching the permitting process for Vineyard Wind, a major project off Massachusetts with 84 turbines and a capacity of 800 megawatts, enough to power 1 million homes. The $3 billion wind farm is being jointly developed by a partnership that includes Iberdrola and Avangrid, the parent companies of Central Maine Power Co. It was due to be in operation in 2021.
But last August, the bureau dropped a bombshell on Vineyard Wind. It announced a so-called cumulative impacts environmental review of all the projects planned on the East Coast. The agency now says it will make a final decision in December.
The permitting delay forced Vineyard Wind this month to push back its estimated operations date to 2022.
When the bureau’s slowdown was first announced last fall, Mills and the governors of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut and Virginia sent a letter to the secretaries of the Interior and Commerce Departments voicing their concerns.
“Further government delay would have negative impacts on this project, offshore wind development along the East Coast and the further expansion of American jobs that support this industry,” they wrote.
On another front, Maine officials are participating in a recently formed regional task force made up of states that border the Gulf of Maine. They are trying to work with the federal government to develop an industry in the gulf that can coexist with existing interests, such as fisheries and tourism.
Taken together, those efforts may benefit from the experiences and contacts Maine officials gather during their upcoming overseas trip.
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