A turning point for offshore wind energy?

November 18, 2013 by  
Filed under Green Energy News

The VolturnUS owes its existence to a university-led consortium called DeepCwind, whose funders include the U.S. Department of Energy, the state of Maine and a large group of private companies, including Cianbro, PPG and Owens Corning. The consortium’s goal is to install two full-size turbines off of Maine’s Monhegan Island in 2016 and have a full-scale wind farm in place by the 2020s. The ultimate goal is to produce five gigawatts of power offshore by 2030 — twice as much power as the entire state of Maine requires and the equivalent output of five nuclear power plants. Dagher estimates the project could attract $20 billion in private investment and create thousands of jobs.

He likes to refer to the VolturnUS as a “floating lab” and, for now, is much more interested in the data it’s producing than in the small, almost-symbolic amount of power flowing into the grid. Since winter winds are about twice as powerful as summer winds, the turbine is now entering its real testing period. But as Russell Edgar, the university’s wood composites manager, and operations manager for the turbine project, put it, “Some of the fruits of our labor won’t come to fruition for years, if not decades.” Those fruits could include major advances in the most essential elements of offshore turbine design.

In May of next year, about the time the VolturnUS is scheduled to be towed out of the harbor, the Department of Energy will choose three off-shore-wind projects as recipients of an additional $46 million in funding. If the University of Maine’s “floating lab” is among them, the school will be one step closer to building a full-scale wind farm.

For now, the costs of off-shore wind energy are still high — about double that of land-based projects, by Dagher’s estimation. “We have to become cost effective or we’ll never survive,” he said, adding that he remains optimistic that government and community support will fall into place. “Eventually society does what’s good for society,” he said, expressing the kind of relentless positivism common among those invested in offshore-wind energy. “We have no choice but to get there.”

The prototype may be small, but it’s doing much of the heavy lifting needed to advance this energy solution. The result of more than five years of development, the VolturnUS collects reams of data on its own performance, which will then be used to inform the design of later, full-scale models. How do the blades respond to storms? (They’re designed to minimize wind resistance in dangerous gusts.) Does the floating platform stay steady in choppy waters? To test the behavior of a one-eighth scale model, Dagher’s team first had to find an area with comparably small waves. A computerized wave model of the coast of Maine indicated that Castine Harbor showed promise, and measurements on site confirmed it. As Dagher puts it, “This model is specific to Castine.”

Comments are closed.