The University of Maine’s effort to pioneer floating offshore wind technology took a $100 million leap forward Wednesday with the announcement that two industry heavyweights are going to invest in development of the project near Monhegan Island.
A subsidiary of the Mitsubishi company, called Diamond Offshore Wind, is joining with RWE Renewables to invest the $100 million to build and deploy a full-scale, floating wind farm at the site, about 14 miles off Maine’s coast. The new company, called New England Aqua-Ventus, will collaborate with the University of Maine composites program that was the incubator for the project’s unique floating-platform technology.
“It’s a big endeavor,” says Chris Wisseman, a long time executive in the offshore wind industry who will lead the new company. “It will take a couple years really, to get this off the ground right. To prove that we can build it with Mainers, deploy it safely and really use it as a laboratory for everybody to learn from.”
The investment signals the full rehabilitation of an effort that had withered during the governorship of Republican Paul LePage, a fierce opponent of renewable energy projects he characterized as over-dependent on consumer subsidies. Two years ago, his appointees to the state Public Utilities Commission put a hold on a power contract vital to taking the Aqua-Ventus technology beyond the scale-model prototype that floats off Monhegan now.
But last year the Legislature passed a law signed by Democratic Gov. Janet Mills, directing the Commission to award a power contract to the project.
“That set the foundation for this project to take off,” says Wisseman. “So we come in as developer, we are essentially restarting development, selecting the final turbines, we are working on all the engineering details, and so the collaboration with the University is to finish that development, and now get it ready for construction.”
The full-scale project will feature a giant turbine on a floating, concrete hull made from concrete. Maine-based Cianbro will construct the modular platform segments in Brewer and barge them down the Penobscot River to Searsport, where they will be con-joined with the turbine and tower and then taken out to sea.
The design was innovated at the University of Maine’s Advanced Structures and Composites program, and it aims to allow economically competitive wind energy development in waters deeper than is practical for traditional fixed-platform systems. Backers say it will be the first full-scale floating wind platform in North America, giving Maine a prominent role in a potentially lucrative technology of the future.
“It’s a big technology play from our perspective, and the university now has 43 patents,” says Dr. Habib Dagher, who leads the university program.
“The technology was also designed specifically so it can be built locally to create local jobs. That’s really a big distinction between this technology and many others. We don’t have to import the hulls from anywhere else. We’re going to make them right here in Maine.”
The project is expected to create 350 jobs during construction and could be completed by 2023. It has yet to receive any permits though, and is likely to run into some opposition from fishermen and others worried about offshore wind projects potential effects on marine life.
The new company is hiring Genevieve McDonald, a Stonington lobsterman and member of the Legislature, to be its liaison with maritime communities.
One outside observer who recently authored a federal report on the project, Walter Musial of the National Renewable Energy Laboratories, says the investors have deep pockets. Walter Musial says that allows them to play the long game.
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