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Why DOE-Funded Floating Turbines May Change Future of Offshore Wind


This week, Statoil has an application for a pilot demonstration of their Hywind floating wind turbine 12 miles off the coast of Maine before the new Bureau of Ocean Energy Management for approval. The demo would be the fruition of a project begun in 2009, and funded by the Department of Energy.

Then Maine Governor John Baldacci had visited Norway to inspect Statoil’s Hywind floating turbine project with state and university officials and business leaders and encouraged Statoil to consider his state for deep-water testing of the commercial floating wind turbine technology in the Gulf of Maine. A return visit introduced Norway’s Statoil to turbine construction expertise in Maine, visiting the Vinalhaven wind turbines on the Fox Islands constructed by Cianbro.

Maine is a good site for the test, with deep coastal waters conducive to testing floating technologies and the University of Maine, with its DeepCWind Consortium and the public/private partnership at its  Advanced Structures and Composites Center.

The University of Maine had been the recipient of an $8 million federal grant in 2009 from the Department of Energy for wind energy research, with up to $5 million in addition subsequently. Four pilot sites off the coast of Maine were under consideration.

Pilot programs of ocean enrgy technology typically cost much more than $8 million. The inventor of the Waveroller told me in Finland that full scale pilot tests can be at least $100 million.  As in all manufacturing industries; that “first sample” can cost as much as ten times as much to produce as the same thing on a production line.

However, because Statoil already has a prototype of its Hywind floating turbine operating since last summer off the coast of Norway, this second one can be built for much less, even though, for the US, it would be a “pilot” project. Norway’s Statoil is the world leader in floating wind turbine development, so Maine made frugal use of DOE funds, getting a very big bang for the buck. There is another reason it is a good investment. Turbines have to be constructed nearby. It is not an import industry.

Maine has the skilled industrial employees ready and willing to work, who currently work for local companies such as Bath Iron Works and Cianbro, the turbine manufacturer that built the wind farm that delivers 100% of the electricity for Vinalhaven, one of the Fox Islands off the coast. Although Norway’s Statoil and Germany’s Siemens brought the expertise to the US, it is US workers that will benefit if the application is approved, the test is a success and offshore wind potential gets harnessed to provide clean energy here.

In this way, one of the smaller investments of the 2009 Recovery Act might in fact wind up unleashing one of the bigger results. Most of the world’s offshore wind is already a maturing industrial sector in Europe, with a staggering 141 GW of offshore wind in the pipeline.

In Europe offshore wind projects are going forward with turbines attached to the sea floor which limits suitable wind farm locations, and Europe is already up against those limits.

But the partnership between Statoil and the University of Maine on the floating model could instead yield a new kind of offshore wind industry in the US, starting from scratch with floating wind farms rather than attaching the turbines to the sea floor, opening up much more useful ocean territory to energy production, regardless of depths.

Because of greater ability to access stronger and more consistent winds deeper out at sea, floating turbines are possibly more economically efficient in the long term. Despite having had to learn from European companies to get started, the US could thus take offshore wind in a whole new direction and greatly expand it.

(Previous: EU Invades US for Energy Resource.)

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