The state of Maine and multiple private partners are collaborating on a floating wind turbine demonstration project in the Gulf of Maine’s deep waters.
Fishing groups in the state known for its lobster catch are opposing the plan, which aims to gain new insights into floating wind turbine technology.
“It’s really helpful to think of the research array as a laboratory at sea for offshore wind,” Anthony J. Ronzio, deputy director of the Governor’s Office of Policy Innovation and the Future, told Professional Mariner.
The state will measure the impact of floating offshore wind projects on the environment and marine life while gaining insight into what on- and off-shore support such arrays need, Ronzio said.
“[We will] research what offshore wind energy on a very small scale would look like in the Gulf of Maine,” he said. The project will explore “how it would impact and coexist with fisheries, how it would impact the marine environment and [how] to do this in a responsible way.”
The state filed an application with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) to station a floating platform, dubbed the Gulf of Maine Floating Offshore Wind Research Array, in federal waters. It will have up to 12 turbines with a capacity to generate up to 144 megawatts. The power will reach the mainland electrical grid through an underwater cable. The array is a project of New England Aqua Ventus, a joint venture between Mitsubishi subsidiary Diamond Offshore Wind, Diamond Generating Corporation and RWE Renewables. The state intends to use floating platform technology developed at the University of Maine (UMaine).
Prior to development of the full 12-turbine array, New England Aqua Ventus plans to team up with UMaine to put another single-turbine platform in Maine waters in 2022 or 2023. It would be an exploratory project utilizing a $150 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy.
Plans for constructing the turbine are still in the early stages, and it’s possible foreign ships will be used, according to a representative from New England Aqua Ventus. Floating structures are not subject to the Jones Act, giving New England Aqua Ventus expansive legal permissions to use foreign vessels. However, the group plans to employ mostly U.S. boats for regular service and maintenance of the array, the spokesperson said.
The Maine project differs from existing U.S. wind turbine projects, and the large-scale sites operating in European waters, because the turbines would not anchored to the seafloor.
New England Aqua Ventus plans to use floating concrete developed at UMaine. The material is made to be less dense than water, allowing it to stay on the surface.
Researchers at the University of Maine, aware of the unique complications of the state’s deep waters, have been testing floating wind projects for more than a decade. In 2013, they launched a floating platform holding a single turbine, at one-eighth the scale of a standard turbine, and used it to deliver the first-ever electricity from a floating rig to the U.S. power grid.
Floating wind infrastructure has several advantages, according to Habib Dagher, executive director of the University of Maine’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center. “The visual impact is less,” he said. “You find (a suitable place) where you can put it. You can pick them up if you want them somewhere else 50 years later. There are less environmental issues. With fisheries, there are less issues.”
As the floating turbine project moves forward, Maine officials approved a 10-year moratorium on new offshore wind projects in state waters. The proposed 12-turbine floating array, proposed for federal waters, is not subject to the state ban. And the single turbine planned for state waters was approved before the moratorium took effect, making it exempt. Federal waters begin three nautical miles offshore.
Passage of the moratorium highlights concerns raised by the state’s powerful fishing industry, which is largely comprised of lobstermen. In 2020, the state’s more than 4,000 licensed lobstermen caught more than 96 million pounds of lobster, and the industry generates $1.6 billion a year in economic activity.
Virginia Olsen, a commercial fisher and a representative for Maine Lobstering Union-Local 207, said fishermen generally oppose offshore wind. In the case of the research array, she said, “we have questions we need answers to.”
In March, as officials surveyed the seabed for the placement of a cable to connect to the electrical grid for Aqua Ventus’ single turbine, 80 lobster boats formed a parade in Monhegan and Boothbay harbors to protest the project. A month later, fishing industry workers also demonstrated outside the Augusta Civic Center where legislators met during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The commercial fishing industry fears the offshore wind infrastructure will interfere with their navigation systems, the migratory patterns of lobsters and the ability of the Coast Guard to perform search and rescue missions, Olsen said.
Dagher acknowledged fishing groups have raised important questions about offshore wind. However, he said, data and research collected from the floating turbines could provide some useful answers.