The VolturnUS prototype, the nation’s first grid-connected offshore wind turbine, was deployed for testing in Castine Harbor on June 2, 2013, by the University of Maine and its partners, Cianbro and Maine Maritime Academy.
The VolturnUS prototype, the nation’s first grid-connected offshore wind turbine, was deployed for testing in Castine Harbor on June 2, 2013, by the University of Maine and its partners, Cianbro and Maine Maritime Academy.

The U.S. Department of Energy has just awarded a University of Maine-led consortium $3.7 million to continue its research and development of offshore wind technology. Last year, Maine Aqua Ventus (MAV) — a private-public consortium including utility Emera Maine, construction company Cianbro and UMaine — failed to win a competitive bid for a $47 million Department of Energy grant to fund development of an offshore wind pilot project to be built off of Monhegan. However, this latest award, which builds on the smaller $3 million DOE grant the group received last year, will now put Maine Aqua Ventus on financial par with the other competing offshore wind demonstration projects.

MAV came in fourth among the seven applicants competing for last year’s grant and was considered to be an alternate for the second upcoming round of demonstration grant funding. All three winners — Oregon, Virginia and New Jersey — have since failed to win contracts in their states to sell the power that they planned to produce. The three other projects have been given an extension until May to make improvements. At that time, the DOE will reassess all of the projects, including Aqua Ventus, to determine who will get further funding.

“We continue to make significant progress by demonstrating the technical and cost-reduction advantages of the VolturnUS floating concrete offshore wind technology,”  said Professor Habib Dagher, director of UMaine’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center and principal investigator of the DeepCwind Consortium, in a statement. “ Our team is busy putting the final touches on the design of the 6 MW hulls for the 12 MW demonstration project. The additional funding will help us complete all aspects of the project planning, negotiate supply contracts with industrial partners, and approach financial close for the project. The UMaine VolturnUS technology has important national impact as it allows us to more cost effectively access over 50 percent of the US offshore wind resource in deep waters within 50 miles of the coast, and creates local and regional jobs, as the hulls can be produced near the project site.”

The developers proposed building the two-turbine, 12-megawatt project 2.5 miles south of Monhegan Island and 12 miles from the mainland, with the goal of providing power to approximately 6,500 homes. MAV hopes the project will demonstrate the potential to develop a large-scale 500-MW wind farm in the Gulf of Maine. The initial round of grant funding allowed UMaine to deploy the VolturnUS prototype turbine, the nation’s first grid-connected offshore wind turbine, for testing in 2013 off Castine.

The MAV design allows platform components to be fabricated dockside, assembled, towed out to sea and moored to the seabed. Rather than steel, the design requires concrete and composites, which the developers say are cheap and can be manufactured in Maine. Under the terms of the MAV proposal, 50 percent of all building contracts would go to Maine-based businesses. The developers estimate that the platforms will last from 60 to 100 years, and they can be brought in every 20 years to be retrofitted and then sent back out to sea.

However, Maine’s application process for the lucrative DOE grants has been mired in controversy ever since Gov. LePage pulled the plug on Norwegian energy giant Statoil’s plan to build a $120 million offshore wind pilot project near Boothbay Harbor. In 2013, LePage and Republican legislators led by Sen. Mike Thibodeau (R-Waldo County) insisted that the Public Utilities Commission reopen the application process to allow the University of Maine to apply. In response, Statoil abandoned its plans to develop offshore wind projects in Maine, citing the uncertain regulatory environment, and decided to move ahead to establish an offshore wind project in Scotland. 

Supporters of the Monhegan project say that UMaine’s floating wind turbine technology has the potential to demonstrate an affordable way to mass-produce turbine platforms and set the standard for offshore wind production around the world. If a 500-megawatt wind farm in the Gulf of Maine ever came to fruition, the developers estimate it would generate about 2 terawatt hours of energy, which is about 16 to 17 percent of the state’s annual usage, if it ran at just 45-percent capacity. 

“If you take the amount of concrete in the Hoover Dam and use that same amount of concrete to build floating VolturnUS wind turbines,” said Dagher at an energy forum last year, “we would produce four times the amount of electricity as the Hoover Dam.”