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In Bergen, Norway, a project funded by an oil and gas company is being built to harness powerful winds. These gusts are located more than 30 miles from shore at depths of over 300 feet, race up to twice as fast as winds on land, and could generate more than 200 times the energy produced by Norway’s current alternative energy king, hydro power. Capturing deep water wind is a powerful business prospect — the energy could be worth the equivalent of one billion U.S. dollars annually.
The Norwegian company Sway, a wind turbine manufacturer founded in 2001, has for years been working to build what researchers worldwide recognize could be a very lucrative invention — a cost-effective wind turbine for ocean waters deeper than 200 feet. The idea, on the surface, seems perfect — replacing fossil fuel energy with clean wind power collected by turbines placed so far out to sea they’re invisible from shore. But executing that deceptively simple plan has turned out to be one of alternative energy’s most confounding riddles. Besides the obvious challenge of figuring out how to keep floating turbines from being toppled over by unusually powerful gusts or ocean swells, there’s the conundrum of how to erect the turbines in the first place — current designs have them roughly twice as large as your average onshore windmill — as well as how to conduct maintenance on them, make sure the gear boxes don’t short out, and transfer the energy from the turbine to the shore to the lamp in your home. In the United States, there’s also a particularly perplexing web of regulatory requirements that even confuses the agencies charged with granting the permits. More on that later.
In Norway, though, the winds of change do appear to be moving. Last winter, Sway secured a $30 million investment from Norway’s oil and gas utility StatoilHydro to test a 575-foot turbine (275 feet above water, 300 below, plus a dropped anchor line) five miles from Norway’s shore. The company intends to erect the first prototype turbine in 2010, according to Forbes magazine.
The Sway turbine is long and lean with a mast the color of an overripe lemon. The plan is to tow the mast out to sea with a barge, stand it upright by weighting one end, and pop the blades on the top using a crane on the barge. The turbine is then towed by the barge out to deep water, the base of the stem drops an anchor into the seabed that fills with sand, and the anchor is secured to the mast and the top of the turbine by cables. The result is an elegant wind turbine with a slight lean that alone could produce up to 5 megawatts of energy, or enough to power about 1,000 homes.
Designs like Sway’s have caught the attention of alternative energy researchers stateside, including Habib Dagher, director of the University of Maine’s Advanced Structures and Composites Laboratory. The vast majority of Maine’s wind power potential lies in deep water, and for about a year now, Dagher’s been trying to figure out how to build a reliable and cost-effective deep water wind turbine that could withstand nor’easter conditions off the coast of Maine.
In his lab in Orono recently, a 40-foot section of a prototype blade bisects the workspace, and jean-clad assistants weave around it to drill, hammer and test other unrelated composite inventions. A cluster of white wires snakes along the length of the blade, which is made of palm-sized balsa wood squares over a carbon fiber core. Dagher talks briefly about the blade and then stops, saying Mainebiz can’t photograph it because it is a proprietary design for a company he would only say was one of the five largest wind power firms in the world. Along the far wall, a blue steel hydraulic pump suspended from a rig reaching halfway to the ceiling waits to push and pull on the blade to simulate wind resistance. Beside the pump, a stack of cement blocks that could one day serve as the base of the floating turbine towers overhead, and next to the stack, green cement-filled tubes that could one day support an offshore turbine poke up from the basement like giant reeds. The dominance of these wind power experiments in the UMaine lab underscores Dagher’s wind power obsession and the value he believes the alternative energy could provide to the Maine economy — in July, Dagher called on the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs to create a Manhattan Project for offshore wind, and said that Maine is “prepared to lead the nation, [is] ready to do so, if a national program is created.” Dagher’s still waiting on that federal initiative, but locally he has received support — UMaine recently won a $5 million grant from the Maine Technology Asset Fund to add 25,000 square feet to the lab for room to test a full-length blade or base. He’s in a race to come up with a viable model with scientists around the world, including Paul Sclavounos, a marine engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and researchers at Blue H Technologies in the Netherlands, which this month contracted with the United Kingdom for an offshore wind farm.
“The first platform that gets out there that is floating is going to have to be watched for the first two or three years to make sure it is performing,” says Dagher, pausing for a moment on his breakneck tour of every innovation, turbine or otherwise, the lab contains. “We didn’t come to this point overnight,” he says of the deep-water research. “There was a very systematic effort that we went through to evaluate all the wind opportunities for Maine.”
Later, in the quiet of his colleague’s office, Dagher dismisses the notion that lower oil prices might take the metaphorical wind out of his sails.
“If you talk to any oil analyst in the world they will tell you it’s just a matter of time” before prices go back up to $150 a barrel or higher. “We believe the real opportunity in Maine is offshore wind power. The major opportunity for clean energy is offshore wind.”
A race for technology
In the densely populated Northeast, where energy needs are great and land for wind projects is relatively scarce, offshore wind may be a necessity as the country weans itself off of fossil fuels. The leader thus far of the offshore effort on the Atlantic Coast is a state with only 97 miles of coastline — Delaware. The New Jersey-based wind power developer Bluewater Wind in June signed a contract with a Delaware utility to sell the power generated by a 200-megawatt wind farm that will be erected 11.5 miles from the Delaware coast. The turbines will be erected in shallow water (typically less than 200 feet deep) about 12 miles from the coast, and can supply energy for up to 100,000 homes. Other offshore wind projects, all in shallow water, are moving forward along the Atlantic coast and near the Great Lakes. Shallow-water wind farms, where the turbines’ masts can be planted in the sea floor, are a relatively new concept in North America, but are already proliferating in Europe. To date, 7,000 megawatts of wind energy have been installed in Europe, 1,000 of which are offshore, according to the Ocean Energy Institute. In the United States, 5,000 megawatts of wind power enters the grid, but none of it comes from offshore turbines.
Along the some 3,500 miles of Maine coastline, offshore wind power isn’t easy to tap because the continental shelf drops off precipitously about three miles from land. So drilling turbine masts into the seabed, as Delaware plans to do, isn’t feasible here. Because of the deep water, as well as financing and permitting ambiguities, there are no offshore wind power projects in Maine. The deep-water challenge here does, however, come with a uniquely shiny silver lining, in that the wind power in the Gulf of Maine is some of the most powerful in the world, whipping at average winter speeds of 21 miles per hour, and capable of producing at peak up to 100 gigawatts of electricity, equivalent to the power output of 100 Maine Yankee nuclear plants, or 10% of the entire nation’s electricity needs, according to Dagher. With potential this great, it’s no wonder some of Maine’s most entrepreneurial minds are chasing ocean wind — besides Dagher, Matt Simmons, a summer resident of Rockport and former energy advisor to former President George W. Bush, has established the Ocean Energy Institute to study offshore wind; former Harvard University business professor Wick Skinner, who resides in Tenant’s Harbor, and Island Institute President Philip Conkling are involved with OEI; and, of course, there’s Maine’s former governor, Angus King, whose speech calling for regulatory and business support to make the state the “Saudi Arabia of wind” has been presented to business audiences around Maine in recent months, including at Mainebiz’s energy symposium in October. And, in a state this small, it’s also no surprise that those minds all know each other, that they’ve converged in each other’s living rooms to discuss the issue, and that their respective plans to move the state toward offshore wind development all look the same.
Apparently loathe to pussy-foot around, Dagher et al intend to build one of the world’s largest wind farms off the coast of Maine. That means 1,000 shallow- and deep-water 5-megawatt turbines 10 to 20 miles off shore, in water 100 feet to 660 feet deep. The massive wind farm, the majority of which would consist of deep-water floating turbines, would be divided into five sections, and would generate 4.4 gigawatts of energy, twice the peak electrical load used today by the entire state. Sound like a lot of power? It is, but off-shore proponents believe we’ll need it. They envision a Maine that will one day run almost entirely on electricity powered by offshore wind — those watts will power our electric cars and our electric heat pumps, and, of course, light our way. They’ll also, King has said, generate some 30,000 Maine jobs.
It’s an ambitious goal, and even the most optimistic of the group says it will likely be at least a decade before deep-water turbines are turning off the coast because floating turbines, the type necessary to tap deep-water Maine wind, are only in their pricey, prototype stage. George Hart, chief technical officer of the Ocean Energy Institute, estimates the 1,000-turbine plan would cost in the neighborhood of $25 billion.
At that price tag, and with oil costs declining, not to mention a little bump in the road known as the global financial crisis, Hart says the deep-water timeline could be delayed years.
“To really make this happen, someone has to do for offshore wind what Henry Ford did for the automobile and figure out a way to mass produce these [turbines] cheaply and install them cheaply,” Hart says. The industry that could be built around these mass-produced turbines could be a boon for manufacturing and technical sectors around the state, and Hart claims to have been in touch with representatives of Cianbro Corp. and Bath Iron Works about someday manufacturing the turbines. Deep water wind energy, Hart says, “is a major heavy industry, it’s not like manufacturing pinwheels.”
Obstacles, man-made and otherwise
Even if Habib Dagher woke up tomorrow morning with the sketch of a perfect floating wind turbine miraculously implanted in his mind, there are still significant roadblocks to making deep-water wind power a reality. First of all, federal regulators themselves aren’t exactly sure how to permit for the projects, which would typically be sited in the federal waters that begin three miles from the U.S. shoreline. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is charged with permitting for tidal and wave energy, but not wind energy. That duty is up to the Mineral Management Service, the federal agency overseeing energy resources on the outer continental shelf. Seattle-based Grays Harbor Ocean Energy Co. has, according to some observers, lately exploited the overlapping permitting requirements by snagging FERC permits for underwater turbines that also will include wind propellers, grabbing potentially billions of dollars worth of wind energy without having to mess with MMS in what Hart referred to as “outright extortion.” Beyond federal permitting troubles, there’s also the matter of getting permission to transmit the energy from the federal waters to the grid, which requires state permitting and the involvement of agencies like the Army Corps of Engineers.
In November, Gov. John Baldacci created the Ocean Energy Task Force to identify regulatory, technical and economic obstacles to the state’s goal of establishing 2,000 megawatts of offshore energy by 2015, and 3,000 megawatts by 2020. One immediate concern is the grid’s ability to handle intermittent energy like wind and solar. When the wind isn’t blowing, the grid in Maine and beyond doesn’t have the capacity to dive in with a back-up source, according to Don Perkins, co-chair of the Ocean Energy Task Force. It’s not a unique problem — the world’s leading wind power country, Denmark, which generates 20% of its electricity from wind, relies on an energy network with neighbors Norway, Sweden and Germany that allows the country to import energy when the wind in Denmark is weak, and export it when the wind is strong, according to the BBC. Britain, which plans to generate more than a third of its energy from wind by 2020, is wrestling with how to allow for calm days. Giant batteries are being considered, but because of their high cost the country is leaning instead toward back-up power stations that burn fossil fuels.
In Maine and throughout the U.S., “there are limited number of places where the grid has the existing capacity to take a large wind turbine of half a gigawatt or a gigawatt,” says Perkins, who is also president and CEO of the Gulf of Maine Research Institute in Portland.
Perkins says the grid in Maine and nationwide will have to evolve over the next decade simply to accommodate growing energy needs, “so the question is whether it opens the grid up to ocean wind, or whether it closes the door.”
Back in Orono, light snow falls outside the university’s composites center, while inside the technicolor yellow turbines the Norwegian company Sway has pinned its hopes on float serenely in virtual oceans on Habib Dagher’s laptop. Dagher is like a kid showing off his new video game — he leans forward to interrupt the video, pointing to particular elements of the demo he wants to emphasize. This is the same video he showed to Maine legislative leaders days before, and it’s the one he says best exemplifies what might happen in Maine waters.
At the end of the two-minute video, the narration ends, the haunting techno music in the background stops, and the screen freezes and dims on a yellow windmill mid-churn. The tinny hue of the image lends the picture an appropriately fantastical quality — this is, at the moment, still science fiction — but Mainers like Dagher see nothing but opportunity in the powerful promise of these virtual inventions.
Sara Donnelly, Mainebiz managing editor, can be reached at email@example.com.
Read Part 2, "Energy projects target Wiscasset"
Read Part 3, "Grid lock"