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UMaine Looks to Fill Void in Offshore Wind Power Left by Statoil
07/12/2013   Reported By: Susan Sharon

Now that the Norwegian energy company Statoil has announced that it is putting its offshore wind demonstration project on hold, pressure is building on the University of Maine to submit a bid to the Public Utilities Commission for its own pilot project. Statoil's decision came after the Maine Legislature, at the request of the LePage Administration, agreed to reopen the bidding process. UMaine's front-man for wind development is now proposing to make both projects more competitive by merging them.

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It's no secret that Gov. Paul LePage is no fan of wind. And he's apparently no fan of Statoil even though the company is proposing to spend more than $200 million in Maine to potentially develop a world class resource. One of the governor's concerns has been the high cost to ratepayers of Statoil's Hywind demonstration project planned for Boothbay Harbor. But Dr. Habib Dagher of the University of Maine thinks there may be a way to bring the cost down.

"A lot of the costs in a demonstration project is the cost of electrical transmission from shore," Dagher said.

Dagher said He's been working to develop the VolturnUS project in Castine Harbor. It recently became the first floating offshore wind turbine to generate power in the U.S. And Dagher said he's been discussing the idea of combining forces with Statoil for the past several months.

"Both projects are about ten miles away from shore and both require a long undersea cable, require electrical infrastructure on land to tie into the grid," Dagher said. "It requires environmental permitting costs. It requires maintenance and operations costs."

Dagher said if the two projects came together into one, costs could be shared. Both are also currently competing separately as finalists for a U.S. Department of Energy grant worth about $50 million. But if they merged Dagher said they could bolster Maine's chances of winning.

"So it makes sense in that it would put the state of Maine in a position where DOE now with one project can actually test two technologies," he said.

"Right off the bat without even having to dig very far I can calculate a fair amount of cost savings by having the two projects work together," said Paul Williamson. He is the coordinator for the Maine Wind Industry Initiative.

"One of the arguments that I've actually been making for quite some time to players here in Maine and also nationally is that by investing in both projects in Maine the U.S. Department of Energy actually has a better rate of return on their investment because you end up with cluster development which accelerates technology development," Williamson said.

But there are key differences between Statoil, an energy conglomerate, and the University of Maine, a non profit educational institution. There are also differences between their prototypes. Three years ago Statoil was the first in the world to develop an at-scale floating wind project to generate power to the grid off the coast of Norway. Its turbine is 100 times larger than the one being demonstrated by the university. Former PUC chair Jack Cashman said he believes the university should stick to its role in research and development.

"The idea of the University of Maine leading the charge to develop a project like this, that's not the role of a university, traditionally," said Cashman. "To have them competing against a business is rather ridiculous on its face and the idea that you would joint venture a deal with another business, I can't imagine that Statoil would be interested in that or that any other business would be interested."

A spokesperson for Statoil declined to comment for this story. Dagher points out that the University of Maine already has 26 industry partners involved in it VolturnUS project, including the Cianbro construction company whose CEO also declined to be interviewed for this story. Meanwhile, Cashman said he cannot ever recall the PUC being ordered to reopen bidding for a project after one company has been selected. He thinks it sends a bad message about the stability of Maine's business climate. BUT Dagher said the University will meet the PUC's September deadline to submit a proposal for a power purchase agreement.

"In the next 20 or 30 years being able to develop this interview, to help diversify our energy mix is very important to the state," said Dagher. "It can help create jobs, in the long run reduce our electricity costs, reduce our carbon footprint in the state. All of these are good things and I think what we need to do is figure out how to all work together for this to happen and to create as many opportunities for the state of Maine."

Dagher said he hopes that Statoil will remain part of that future whether it proceeds on its own in Maine or joins forces with the University.

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