AUGUSTA — The Maine Public Utilities Commission in a 2-1 vote on Jan 14 approved terms for a project that would put two floating wind turbines off Monhegan Island as part of a test for the new technology. Permitting and other hurdles must be cleared before the turbines are built.
The PUC approval was needed because the Legislature, as part of its 2012 energy bill, requested proposals for developing offshore wind energy. Early last year, the Norwegian company Statoil was chosen by PUC, but under pressure by Gov. Paul LePage to reopen the bidding, Statoil withdrew from consideration.
Under the new request for proposals, the University of Maine, the Maine construction firm Cianbro and the Nova Scotia-based energy company Emera, operating under the name Maine Aqua Ventus (MAV), sought to win the test work.
MAV established a one-eighth scale version of the floating turbine off Castine last spring, a technology its engineers believe make the project viable.
MAV has won a first round of federal Department of Energy funding, and is relying in large part on winning another round of DOE money this year. Under the term sheet approved by PUC, Central Maine Power (CMP) will purchase electricity produced by the two turbines at a cost expected to be higher than the market rate. CMP ratepayers will be picking up the tab for that higher rate. The specific terms will be developed later this year and will need PUC approval. The Portland Press Herald estimated that the average CMP residential ratepayer will see an additional 73 cents on each monthly bill to pay for the project.
The principal designers for MAV, including Habib Dagher, the director of UMaine’s composite center, argue that new technology like the floating turbines needs public funding assistance until economies of scale are achieved and the cost of production drops.
They also tout the creation of jobs and bolstered manufacturing, if the technology is adopted here and elsewhere. The capacity of offshore wind in the Gulf of Maine could be as much as 150 gigawatts, Dagher has said, which is 70 times the amount of electricity Maine now consumes. An export market in southern New England for the electrictiy could make large-scale wind farms profitable, proponents say.
The two test turbines will produce, at top capacity, 12 megawatts. By comparison, the three Fox Island Wind turbines produce, at peak capacity, 4.5 megawatts. The UMaine turbines will be linked by submarine cable to both Monhegan Island, some 2.5 miles to the north, and to the CMP electric grid at Bristol, 12 miles to the west.
If the test of the floating turbines proves favorable and the consortium wins further funding, likely from private investors, and gets the necessary permitting, a full build-out could bring dozens of turbines to the waters of the Gulf of Maine.
The term sheet between MAV, CMP and the PUC stipulates that the project will provide electricity at no cost to Monhegan Island Plantation Power District for the duration of the contract, which is 20-plus years, “in an annual amount not to exceed 340 megawatt hours”¦ with a maximum demand of 300 kilowatts.”
In addition, MAV must pay “the commercially reasonable costs and installation of all interconnection to fulfill this commitment,” according to the term sheet. MAV also will bring a fiber optic cable to the island to facilitate high-speed Internet service there.
Monhegan electric users will have to pay the transmission portion of their bills to the island power district.
A more detailed contract between the players will be refined by attorneys and then face another PUC vote in the coming months, said PUC staffer Harry Lanphear.
The project remains controversial, though. Commissioners Thomas Welch and David Littell voted in favor of the deal, but Commissioner Mark Vannoy voted against it.
Construction of the test turbines is expected to begin in 2015.