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Maine Splash Heard Round the World: First Offshore Wind Turbine Put in Place
05/31/2013   Reported By: Jennifer Mitchell

Today, history was made as a deep water offshore wind turbine - the very first of its type - was successfully lowered into the Penobscot River. The engineers who have worked on the project, from conception to deployment, were fairly certain that the giant structure would float and function as intended. But, as Jennifer Mitchell reports, there was still a huge sigh of relief as the VolternUS was launched.

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Turbine 4You could call it the splash heard round the world - except that it was a remarkably quiet process in the end. The 65-foot VolternUS turbine (left) was lowered inch by painstaking inch by a crane, until it finally floated on its massive concrete base in the waters of the Penboscot near Bangor.

"So the unit is doing exactly what it's supposed to do right now - it's very exciting, it's very nice, when engineering and physics work, which is what we've seen today," says Dr. Habib Dagher, who heads the Advanced Structures and Composites Center at the University of Maine.

Turbine 1Dagher (right) admits that there have been many sleepless nights, plenty of worries, and endless problems to solve, but he says those problems did get solved, and now Maine is embarking on a wind project not quite like any other in the world.

The turbine is made of advanced composite material created at the lab, where several patents on the technology are pending. The base is hollow concrete, which, if designed correctly, will not only float, but last 75 to 100 years in the sea, says Dagher.

"So everything you look at here does not corrode," he says. "That's very important because you don't want to be out there maintaining these units in the Gulf of Maine."

The project has been six years in the making. It started with a conversation at the university and ended here, with a bottle of christening champagne, wielded by Sen. Susan Collins.

"I believe we have a great story to tell in Washington," Collins says. "This is a successful investment of federal funds as the catalyst that has allowed this project to go forward."

Of the $96 million for the pilot project, the wind project is one of seven pilot energy projects around the country receiving a total of up to $47 million from the Department of Energy. The remainder of funds for the wind project will be made up by the DeepCWind Consortium partners, which include some 30 businesses and investors from across the globe, including Maine's Cianbro Corporation and Bath Iron Works, as well as Central Maine Power's parent company, Iberdrola.

But this is just Phase One of the 12-megawatt pilot wind farm project, which will be able to heat more than 20,000 homes. The turbine currently floating in the Penobscot is a fraction of the size of the Phase Two turbines, which are expected to be deployed sometime in 2016. Those turbines are expected to stand 300-feet tall, and have a rotor-diameter equivalent to the length of about one-and-a-half football fields.

Eventually, the goal is to place as many as 90 of these units between 20 and 50 miles out to sea, just over half a mile apart. Consortium partner Peter Vigue, CEO of Cianbro Corporation, which put the structure together, says the project should provide power to the Northeast grid, and provide hundreds of jobs.

"There is a significant opportunity not only to satisfy the renewable energy needs, but at the same time, to have a significant impact on the economy in this reagion, in this area," Vigue says.

Offshore wind projects were first launched off the coast of Europe back in 1991, and UMaine's Habib Dagher says DeepCWind was able to learn from mistakes made elsewhere. Unlike those early wind projects, VolternUS and its successors, will not be fixed to the seabed on a stationary platform, but be free-floating and moored with undersea cables. This, he says, should make the technology cheaper to build and maintain.

The units can be constructed on land, floated down the river and placed where they need to go in the Gulf of Maine. The goal for 2020 is to be generating offshore wind power for just 10 cents a kilowatt hour.

But first, it all has to work. "This is a test - that's why we're going out there," Dagher says. "Do we have all the answers? No we don't. Are we very confident that this going to work? Yes we are."

For now, VolternUS will bob in place just off the shores of Brewer, in the Penobscot. Sometime over the weekend it will be towed by a tugboat to the waters near Castine. And if all goes according to plan, could be churning out out electricity as early as Monday.

Photos:  Nick Woodward


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