Monday’s announcement that a consortium led by University of Maine will get a $3.7 million funding boost from the U.S. Department of Energy puts Maine back in the running for a $40 million grant to install two six-megawatt wind turbines in deep water off Monhegan Island.
“It does put us back in the game,” Habib Dagher, director of UMaine’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center and principal investigator of the DeepCwind Consortium, told Mainebiz in a telephone interview Monday afternoon. “We couldn’t be more pleased. This is a big deal.”
The additional federal funding builds on the $3 million committed to the Maine Aqua Ventus pilot project in May 2014, when it was named an alternate to offshore projects in New Jersey, Virginia and Oregon. At that time, UMaine officials put on a brave face in being a runner-up to the three projects, which had each received $6.7 million in the first installment of individual $46.7 million DOE grants that are intended to help them achieve commercial operation by 2017.
But those projects have each encountered strong headwinds, including higher-than-expected costs and failures to secure power purchase agreements. After reviewing in the R&D progress UMaine’s consortium had achieved with its lower funding over the past year, Dagher said, the DOE decided to give the Maine Aqua Ventus pilot project an equal shot of securing $40 million when it reviews the progress of the four offshore projects next spring.
“We had a very unique design,” Dagher said, acknowledging that DOE needed stronger assurances that Aqua Ventus’s semi-submersible platform using a lower-cost concrete foundation in addition to a lighter-weight composite tower would actually deliver on its promise of being higher performing, more efficient and cheaper to build than traditional platforms.
Dagher said DOE officials essentially told him, “Show us how this can be used anywhere.”
“That was the major question they wanted answered,” he said, noting that UMaine’s Aqua Ventus team spent the better part of the past year having contractors from across the country analyze its design specifications and pioneering technology.
Dagher said that independent analysis — coupled with 18 months of data on UMaine’s 1:8 VolturnUS floating wind turbine’s performance when it was deployed off Castine proving its stability — persuaded DOE officials the pioneering technology held promise in achieving cost-effective offshore wind power on a commercial scale.
“Working with some of the best contractors in the United States, including Cianbro, we’ve been able to validate our predictions of cost,” he said.
It also helped, he said, that the UMaine consortium had already in hand a 20-year power contract, which was approved in January 2014 by the Maine Public Utilities Commission.Dagher said the UMaine consortium will use the additional $3.7 million over the next six months to complete all aspects of the project planning, negotiate supply contracts with industrial partners and continue to make improvements to the floating platform’s design.
Aqua Ventus and the other offshore wind projects will have until May 1 to meet additional milestones, with DOE slated to decide on May 31 which ones will receive additional funding under the federal Offshore Wind Advanced Technology Demonstration Project.
“The $40 million is critical to move forward,” Dagher said.
If the UMaine consortium succeeds in landing one of those grants, he said the goal is to have two full-scale 6MW wind turbines producing power off Monhegan by 2019.