There goes Scotland again. Maine Governor Janet Mills toured the country back in March and came away with big plans to stake out a claim on floating offshore wind turbines. Then the COVID-19 lockdown happened and the whole idea appeared to be mothballed. Now it has suddenly come roaring back to life. If all goes according to plan, the Granite State will set the stage for a new surge of activity in the US wind industry. That would give Scotland the last laugh, but more on that in a sec.
Floating Wind Turbines: The Scotland-Maine Connection
For those of you new to the topic, floating wind turbines are designed for water that is too deep for conventional platform construction. The US got a head start on floating wind turbine R&D during the Obama administration, but things stalled out after that.
Aside from political obstacles and potential conflicts with maritime commerce, floating wind turbines pose unique engineering challenges, which is why they have been popping up in some parts of the world but not others.
That leads to Maine, which has some of the deepest and most challenging waters for wind turbines, but also boasts sustained offshore wind speeds that are among the best in the world. According to one estimate, the state’s offshore wind resources could meet its existing electricity demand 36 times over.
With an eye on that prize, Maine policy makers have been supporting a public-private research collaboration through the University of Maine and a firm called Maine Aqua Ventus, which got an assist from the US Department of Energy back in 2015. That was quite an achievement, considering then-governor Paul LePage’s opposition to renewable energy development.
Last December CleanTechnica noted that Maine is already chock full of renewable energy, which leads one to question why should they take a risky bet on the as-yet untried floating wind turbine area.
Part of the answer may lie in that Scottish wind industry tour. Scotland has begun to leverage its powerful offshore wind industry to produce green hydrogen, and Maine has been eyeballing green hydrogen as a way to deliver more clean kilowatts despite some bottlenecks in its existing transmission system.
Just to spice the green hydrogen angle up a bit, Mitsubishi is involved in the Maine project, having acquired the newly dubbed firm New England Aqua Ventus through a joint venture with its Mitsubishi Renewables Diamond Offshore Wind subsidiary and the firm RWE Renewables. Mitsubishi is making a hard pivot into green hydrogen, so it will be interesting to see where that fits into Maine’s floating wind turbine scheme.
State policy makers may also be looking to position Maine’s offshore wind resources for energy export, deploying green hydrogen. Decarbonizing the state’s fishing industry could also be on the to-do list, considering recent activity in the hydrogen fuel cell watercraft field.
Full Speed Ahead For Floating Offshore Wind Turbines, Eventually
Whatever Mills saw in Scotland, it seems to have lit a fire under things.
The Aqua Ventus R&D project has been coming along in tandem with Maine’s overall clean energy plans over the past several years, and last Friday Mills officially confirmed that the project will vault into the status of a full fledged floating wind turbine research array, with benefits that will ripple out regionally, nationally, and globally.
That’s a delicate commitment for Maine, given the state’s longstanding reliance on its fishing industry. The idea is that both technology and environmental lessons learned in Maine can help resolve similar issues in other regions.
“I believe Maine can lead the country in floating offshore wind technology, but it must be done in partnership with Maine’s fishermen, to form a science-based mutual understanding of how best to design and operate floating wind turbines in the precious Gulf of Maine,” Mills explained. “A research area is a prudent step toward securing our state’s leadership position, working collaboratively with fishermen and scientists, and developing offshore wind to realize the significant energy, economic and climate benefits it stands to offer our state.”
Don’t break out the pom-poms just yet, because the plan still has to pass muster with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. Assuming it gets the green light, the research array will consist of up to 12 or so floating offshore wind turbines covering about 16 square miles of the Gulf of Maine, ranging from 20 to 40 miles away from shore.
So Much For All Your Coal (And Gas & Oil) Jobs
There’s an interesting political twist to all this, considering soon-to-be former President* Trump’s well known antipathy to wind power. In addition to Energy Department support for the new research array, Trump’s own Commerce Department is also assisting the effort through the Economic Development Administration.
Just last month, EDA sweetened the Maine floating offshore wind power pot with a new $2.166 million grant for the Governor’s Energy Office to develop a statewide plan. State and local agencies will contribute another $380,000 or so.
“This project will allow Maine to capitalize on its technical leadership in the wind power sector to diversify and grow the state’s economy and make it more resilient,” enthused Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.
Do tell! One wonders what Ross’s boss must have thought about that ringing endorsement of the US wind industry from his own appointee, which appeared in an official EDA press release announcing the new research array.
Wait ’til he gets a load of what Ross’s appointee Dana Gartzke said, in performance of delegated duties as Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Economic Development.
In the same press release, Gartzke drew a clear picture of how the Maine offshore wind research project will benefit the entire US wind industry, by creating a roadmap for “establishing a floating offshore wind power industry by examining manufacturing processes, supply chains, port facilities, transportation systems, shipbuilding opportunities, ecosystem relationships, workforce development plans, power interconnections, exports, and economic impacts.”
But wait, there’s more. The EDA press release also gave Mills an opportunity to emphasize the global potential of the project.
“This important award will give Maine a roadmap for growing our clean energy economy in collaboration with our heritage industries, especially fishing, in order to support our state’s economic recovery from COVID-19 and sound the call that Maine intends to be a global competitor, innovator and leader in floating offshore wind,” she said.
Scotland Gets The Last Laugh
As for Scotland, several Scottish lawmakers are (still) pushing for an investigation of the Trump Organization’s golf operations in Scotland, alleging high stakes money laundering.
If such an investigation ever takes place, that would be the cherry of irony on top of Trump’s relationship with Scotland, golf, and wind energy all together. Scotland has suffered through years of legal battles with the Trump Organization over its golf operations, partly due to plans for a new offshore wind farm in Aberdeen bay, linked to a new wind R&D center. The Trump Organization claimed the turbines would spoil the view from the golf club in Aberdeen, but they lost the case (shocker!), the wind turbines went up, and now policy makers from all over the world are looking to Scotland for wind energy inspiration.
It looks like pretty soon they’ll be trekking over to Maine, too.
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Image (cropped): Floating offshore wind turbine via Maine Aqua Ventus.