August 12, 2020

By Ramona du Houx

In August, The University of Maine announced a collaboration with Diamond Offshore Wind, a subsidiary of the Mitsubishi Corporation, and RWE Renewables, the second-largest company in offshore wind globally, to develop UMaine’s floating offshore wind technology demonstration project off the coast of Maine. The design was innovated at the University of Maine’s Advanced Structures and Composites incubator program that produced the project’s unique floating -platform technology.

The newly formed company, called with New England Aqua Ventus, LLC (NEAV) will 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 experience and investment that RWE and Diamond Offshore Wind bring are really unparalleled in the strength they will give to the project,” said Habib Dagher, executive director of the University of Maine Composites Center, leader of program and its technology. “And, if all goes well, it will be mean we will get the first full-scale floater off the US into the water within three years.”

It will be the first full-scale floating wind platform in the Americas, returning Maine to a prominent role in a potentially groundbreaking technology that could be deployed around the world.

“It’s a big technology play from our perspective. The university now has 43 patents,” added Dr. Dagher. “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.”

UMaine’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center will handle ongoing engineering on the pilot, which will see a 10-12MW unit installed in 150 feet (46 metres) of water off Monhegan Island in the Gulf of Maine. It is an economically competitive wind energy development in deep waters beyond the barriers of fixed-platform systems.

“We are really focused on creating economic opportunities for Maine as this new carbon-free economy emerges. We are essentially restarting development, selecting the final turbines, and working on all the engineering details. The collaboration with the University is to finish that development, and get it ready for construction so the project can take off,” said Chris Wisseman, a longtime executive in the offshore wind industry who will lead the new company.

The platform technology at the heart of Aqua Ventus, a concept dubbed VolturnUS, is a multi-patented, ‘segmental’ concrete semisubmersible based on modular bridge designs, which was piloted at 1:8 scale in during 2013-14 and became the first offshore turbine to deliver power to the US grid.

“Our design is ideally suited for deepwater deployment anywhere and has the potential to play a significant role in global efforts to decrease dependence on fossil fuels. The technology is specifically designed to be built locally — this is how we started conceptually with the design,” said Dagher. “Any construction company that has experience build concrete bridges will be able to build the VolturnUS in almost any location in the country.”

Dr. Dagher of the UMaine composite laboratory with Pete Vigue, chairman of The Cianbro, a Maine business that fabricated the hull, and the University president. Photo by Ramona du Houx

The prototype project is expected to create 350 jobs during construction and could be completed by 2023, and produce more than $150 million in total economic output and create hundreds of Maine-based jobs during the construction period.

Along with Aqua Ventus, UMaine’s Advanced Composites Center is advancing a series of projects based on grants from the Department of Energy, including $1.4m to design an ultra-lightweight concrete floating wind power concept fitted with technology first developed by NASA to dampen vibrations in rockets.

Since 2008, the University of Maine has researched floating offshore wind technology as a solution to Maine’s over-dependence on imported fossil fuels. The overall University plan called for about 170 turbines positioned twenty miles offshore in deep-water where the winds are the strongest and where the structures won’t be visible from land.

The state’s Maine Technology Institute was the first to award the university development grants form voter approved bond funds to kick-start the project during the Baldacci administration. Then, Governor Baldacci, saw the potential of offshore wind creating jobs and helping to lesson Maine’s dependency on oil and created The Ocean Energy Task Force. In 2010 one of the laws they developed, with the approval of the Public Utilities Commission (PUC), set standards and a goal for 5,000 MW of offshore electricity to be harnessed by 2030. The task force recommendations also streamlined Maine’s wind regulatory permitting process. In addition, the state established new requirements in 2008 for the Maine Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS).

NASA damper technology is being used to help their offshore wind floating turbine platform, as shown in this graphic supplied by UMaine.

When Governor LePage, came to office he stopped any progress by reversing a PUC decision.

The project was revived in 2019, under Governor Janet Mills and under a new law the PUC was ordered to award a power contract to the project. Mills, along with the state legislature also revised the RPS. Maine’ bipartisan Congressional Delegation has always supported the project and was instrumental obtaining federal Department of Energy grants.

 “This new public-private partnership joins world-class offshore wind developers and UMaine and puts us on track to be home to the nation’s first floating offshore wind project, reflecting the major economic growth opportunity of the clean energy economy,” said Governor Mills.

Nearly two-thirds of households still use fuel-oil as their primary energy source in Maine, according to the Energy Information Administration. The electricity available in deep waters off the coast are equivalent to that produced by 56 nuclear power plants. Offshore floating wind turbine platforms off the coast of Maine could be a boom for supplying electricity to the east coast. Maine’s offshore wind resource potential is at least 36 times greater than the state’s electricity demand.

The delays to Aqua Ventus have ultimately proved to have something of a silver lining, as the project is now moving forward with plans to use one of the industry’s top-of-the-range offshore turbine models – rather than the pair of 6MW units originally scoped out for the pilot.

The blades will be longer than the wingspan of a Boeing 747. “They’ll be bigger than the Washington Monument,” said Dr. Dagher.

The blades will be longer than the wingspan of a Boeing 747. “They’ll be bigger than the Washington Monument,” said Dr. Dagher.

The full-scale project will feature a giant turbine on a floating, concrete hull. Cianbro, of Maine, will construct the modular platform segments in Brewer and send them on a barge down the Penobscot River to Searsport, where they will be assembled with the turbine and tower and then taken out to sea. A successful 2013 mini-prototype was launched from Brewer in 2013 and went through stringent testing.

“Cianbro has been a founding member of the Aqua Ventus team for over ten years and we remain deeply supportive and committed to the development of offshore wind in Maine,” said Pete Vigue, chairman of The Cianbro Companies. “We look forward to working with the NEAV team and all related stakeholders to complete the initial demonstration unit.”

NEAV has hired state Representative Genevieve McDonald, a Stonington lobsterman and member of the Maine Legislature, to be its liaison with maritime communities.

 “This is a very exciting project and exciting technology. We have a lot of experience in fixed-bottom offshore wind project but want to become a global leader in floating wind. We want to achieve this by a stepping-stone strategy, so this is a great opportunity for us to build our capabilities,” said Wojciech Wiechowski, project manager for Aqua Ventus at RWE, which earlier this year announced it would partner with Spanish floating wind outfit Saitec to test a full-scale model of its SATH concept in 2021.

According to new market analysis from UK-based international low carbon advisory body the Carbon Trust, some 70GW of floating wind power plant is forecast be turning by 2040 around the world – a near-1,000-fold expansion of what is currently deployed.

“We see great potential for floating wind farms worldwide, especially in countries like the U.S., with deeper coastal waters,” says Sven Utermöhlen, chief operating officer, Wind Offshore Global of RWE Renewables.

Offshore wind potential along the east coast builds partnerships—

The US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) last year established a task force to provide critical information to the decision-making process for planning future offshore renewable energy development opportunities there. The Gulf of Maine Task Force includes representation from New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Maine and federally recognized Tribes in the area.

With a long-term hope of having all of the roughly 6.7 million houses in New England powered by energy from offshore wind, a new coalition was also launched in August to promote the benefits of the energy source in the region and to push its six states to collaborate and better support a shared vision. About 40 environmental advocacy groups, research institutes, business alliances and more from the formed New England for Offshore Wind.

Wood Mackenzie, consultancy, in a report anticipated that 1,416 sq km (350,000 acres) of area in the Gulf of Maine could go to auction in 2022 to support renewable initiatives.

A 2020 report from the American Wind Energy Association found that the offshore wind sector could employ more than 80,000 people from North Carolina to Maine by 2030, and lead to $25 billion in annual economic output.

The coalition also includes the Alliance for Business Leadership, the National Wildlife Federation, the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Tufts University, the Natural Resources Council of Maine, Vermont Natural Resources Council, Connecticut League of Conservation Voters and more.

More about The Advanced Structure and Composites Center—

ASCC is the largest research center at the University of Maine. Founded in 1996 through a National Science Foundation award, it is housed in a 100,000-square-foot laboratory with 250 employees and students. ASCC is focused on green energy and materials research, has over 500 clients and partners worldwide, and has received top international awards for its research. It is home to the Alfond W2 Wind-Wave Ocean Engineering Laboratory, as well as the second-largest wind blade testing facility in the U.S. In 2013, it deployed VolturnUS 1:8, the first grid-connected offshore wind turbine in the US. Dr. Habib heads ASCC.