High Wind in the Gulf of Maine

One of the millions of videos you can watch on the Internet shows a 500-foot long steel tower being towed out of a harbor in Finland in 2009. Then as seawater ballast begins to fill one end of the tower, it gently sinks in the water as the remaining 200 feet of tower inclines to a vertical position. Presto, chang-o: you have watched the launch of the world’s first full-scale floating wind tower. After a large turbine is attached to the top of the tower, the whole structure is towed out into the tempestuous North Sea and moored in 600 feet of water by three anchor lines, before it begins to send power back ashore via an underwater cable. Most anyone who has gotten close to the foundation of a terrestrial wind turbine or has spent anytime in the open ocean has a hard time imagining that a floating wind turbine could possibly work. Imagine the forces at work on a tower with a huge and heavy generator 200 feet in the air, needing to maintain thousandth-of-an-inch tolerances on gears and bearings stressed by 50-60-foot winter gale-whipped seas. Not very likely.

And yet, three years later Statoil’s “Hywind” turbine off Stavanger is still successfully producing power for the Norwegian grid. As one of the world’s pioneers in deepwater offshore oil and gas drilling for the last several decades, the thought occurs to you that Statoil may know something about what they are doing.

The offshore wind energy industry is in its infancy—almost completely a creature of the 21st century. Imagine the oil and gas industry at the beginning of the 20th century. You get an idea of how long energy industries take to get up to scale to create an energy revolution.

One of the problems with the fixed foundation technology that has been used to deploy approximately 1000 offshore wind turbines in Europe is that it is not feasible to construct those foundations in water deeper than 100 feet. Not only does this mean that existing offshore wind farms need to be close to shore where most shallow waters are, but these foundations require a lot of environmentally intrusive underwater drilling and pounding, with consequent disruptions to wildlife, especially marine mammals. Plus they require expensive “jack-up” barges and other specially designed marine equipment that has bottlenecked the expansion of the offshore wind industry in Europe.

But if energy companies can figure out how to successfully develop floating platforms for turbines, then suddenly a couple of important things happen: the wind farms can be located further offshore, which is a significant consideration for many coastal areas, and they can be sited where winds blow both harder and more consistently.  Because energy output varies with the cube of average wind speed, small differences in average wind speed translates into very large increases in power production. Land-based wind farms become commercially viable at a capacity factor of something like 30-35 percent, meaning that the wind blows hard enough to create the maximum amount of wind power the turbine is designed to produce approximately one third of the time. Statoil has said that the average capacity factor of its Hywind turbine off Stavanger now exceeds 50 percent.

So two years ago Statoil began prospecting for offshore floating platform pilot areas in deep-water high-wind places like the waters off Scotland and Japan. Japan became especially interested after the Fukishima nuclear power disaster. At the same time, Maine’s Ocean Energy Task Force offered up a recommendation, swiftly approved by the legislature in its Maine Ocean Energy Act. The Act directed Maine’s Public Utilities Commission (PUC) to issue a Request for Proposal (RFP) for a pilot offshore “stepping stone” wind farm at least 10 miles off the Maine coast in waters deeper than 300 feet. Statoil began regularly visiting Maine, talking with University of Maine research professors, state and federal regulators, community groups and fishermen.

The PUC recently released for public comment Statoil’s proposed term sheet for a four-turbine 12 megawatt (MW) pilot offshore wind farm, approximately 12 miles south of Boothbay Harbor and 12 miles southwest of Monhegan in an area with 350-foot water depths. In its comments to the PUC, Statoil wrote that the company chose the Gulf of Maine to test its global commercialization strategy for four reasons: “an excellent wind resource, a strong supply chain (e.g., Bath Iron Works, Cianbro), a unique R&D infrastructure (e.g., the Advanced Composites Lab at UMO) and the 2010 Maine Ocean Energy Act.” The Act specifies not only where such a pilotproject might be, but places a cap on what the PUC can authorize in terms of the subsidized cost of the power that such a small project with high upfront capital costs might require.

Statoil has proposed between 29 and 32 cents per kilowatt hour as the price for the power supplied from its proposed 4-turbine pilot project—within the legislated limits. Statoil has also guaranteed that at least 40 percent of the capital costs of the project and 40 percent of the operational expenses would go to Maine-based companies and expects to begin construction in 2014 if the term sheet is approved by the PUC and approvals are granted by the necessary regulatory agencies. Statoil has further stipulated that if the pilot project is successful, the next phase would be to develop a 500 MW wind farm, which would likely involve a minimum of 100 turbines, followed by a full scale project of between 800-1,000 MW. These are some big numbers and would create a new industry for the state of Maine. By comparison, Maine Yankee, when it was running produced approximately 800 MW of electricity at full power.

The policy questions that the PUC is grappling with revolve around whether Maine ratepayers should be tagged with shouldering the R&D costs for an international energy company’s pilot project. Some will question whether the 29-32 cent subsidized rate for the small amount of energy that will be produced makes any sense when natural gas costs from new shale deposits are restructuring the energy industry. Some are likely to complain that Statoil has not committed to building the next 500 MW of its Phase 2 commercialization strategy in the Gulf of Maine – but only that they would do so in the United States.

All of these complaints are a bit like accepting an invitation to a party and, after being asked to dance, wondering whether your partner is serious, whether the dance might lead to a romance and whether a romance might lead to a marriage.

But right now the question is: do you want to dance?

October 2012