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History Made as Floating Turbine off Maine Coast Begins Feeding Grid
06/13/2013   Reported By: Jay Field

At a little after noon today, the blades of a floating wind turbine began to spin in the waters off Castine, feeding energy to the grid onshore for the first time in U.S. history. The University of Maine and other partners in the project say the prototype turbine, if successful, could foreshadow a future where hundreds of offshore windmills produce electrcity - at competitive rates - for customers all over New England. But as Jay Field reports, they first have to prove their model can outperform the turbines being produced by a top competitor.

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The VolturnUS today begins feeding power to the grid as it floats in Penobscot Bay.

That competitor is Statoil, an international energy conglomerate based in Norway. In 2009, the company began operating the world's first floating turbine in the North Sea. Statoil is now pursuing a $120-million, four-turbine project off Boothbay Harbor. The windmill that UMaine engineers say will ultimately outperform the competition is up the coast, in Penobscot Bay.

Jay Field: "I'm standing on the deck of the Ned in Castine Harbor. This Maine Maritime Academy training vessel is going to take us out to the VolturnUS, the first grid-connected, floating wind turbine in the United States."

"If I could have everyone's attention for a minute please - everyone's attention for a minute. Right up here please!" says MMA's Dana Willis, our capitain for the day. He gives a quick safety talk and we're off.

It's a quick ride - about 10 minutes. Reporters crowd the bow to get a look at the turbine, as it comes into view. It's 65 feet tall with white rotar blades and a yellow shaft and hull anchored in 80 feet of water.

"If you look at the hull, the yellow hull that you look at, that's made out of concrete," says Habib Dagher, who runs the Advanced Structures and Composites Center at the University of Maine. The center designed the turbine and worked with Pittsfield-based construction company Cianbro to build it.

"The tower, the yellow tower that sits on top of that, was made out of composite materials. That's the very first time that a concrete hull and composite material tower were used," Dagher says.

Prototypes by competitors have been made out of steel and assembled at sea. This $1 million windmill was constructed entirely on land at Cianbro's manufacturing facility in Brewer. Dagher say these design decisions are the lynchpin of a strategy that will allow UMaine's turbines to generate cheaper electricity and become more commerically viable than competitors' models.

"Our goal is to get down, in 2020, to the 10 cents a kilowatt hour range," Dagher says. "And that's a very aggressive goal, but certainly a goal were trying to reach. The technology gets the costs down because we're building the whole unit dockside and towing it out to sea."

Ten cents a kilowatt hour is the rate that the U.S. goverment wants to see from these kinds of projects by 2020. And proving its prototype can produce cheap, reliable power is critical, if UMaine and other partners hope to add to the $12 million in seed funding they've already received from the U.S. Department of Energy.

They also need to convince the Maine Public Utilities Commission that their prototype can deliver affordable electricity, "That the technology is feasible and reliable, that you have the capability to install, operate and maintain it," says Jack Ward, vice president for innovation and economic development at UMaine.

Ward says the state Legislature has been supportive of the project so far. For months, Gov. Paul LePage has criticized the PUC for giving Statoil a 27 cents a kilowatt hour contract for its proposed wind project off Boothbay Harbor. LePage says the commission ought to give UMaine a chance to secure a deal for its experiment off Castine.

Photos: Jay Field


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