FLOATING WIND PLATFORMS: AN INTERVIEW WITH PAUL WILLIAMSON, DIRECTOR, MAINE WIND INDUSTRY INITIATIVE (MWII)
BY STAS MARGARONIS
RBTUS spoke with Paul Williamson, director of the Maine Wind Industry Initiative which is playing a leading role in developing new floating wind turbines that can reduce the time and installation cost of older fixed platform wind turbines being installed at sea. The new designs will allow floating platforms to be located further out to sea where wind generation is better and where wind farms will not be seen from shore. Maine is attracting partners that will soon be testing floating wind prototypes.
Williamson started out by explaining what MWII does:
” MWII identifies market opportunities, attracts investment and coordinates suppliers of wind energy in Maine.
One partner is the University of Maine’s, Advanced Structures and Composites Center (ASCC) that focuses on composite materials and has branched out into research on wind blades and wind platforms. They lead the DeepCWind consortium of over 30 international companies working to develop floating wind technology. ASCC recently completed testing on 3 different floating platform designs with fully articulating 1:50 scale models; spar platform, semi-submersible, and tension legged platform. They have developed a scale model of a semi-submersible floating wind turbine model which is in 1:10 ratio of the final product which will be tested soon.
Bath Iron Works, Cianbro and Reed & Reed are leading Maine companies working with a number of efforts to identify opportunities with offshore wind utilizing their infrastructure and experience.
The Norwegian company, StatOil submitted application to the federal government in October 2011 for a pilot project to build 4 wind platforms each with 3 megawatts capability in Maine waters. The permitting process with federal agencies is underway. They are in the process of negotiating power purchase agreements (PPA) with the Maine Public Utilities Commission (the state regulatory body that approves and purchases contracts and directs utilities to follow terms). Two major utilities in Maine are Central Maine Power and Bangor Hydro. Another company company, Ocean Renewable Power Company has signed a long term PPA with the Maine PUC for tidal power and installed the first operating commercial tidal generator this summer.
The (Congressional) extension of the Production Tax Credit supports the construction of onshore and potentially offshore wind projects and is extraordinarily important to developers. If the PTC is not extended, it will create a void in time where fewer installations will occur. However, the market will find a way to continue installations in the future. The major utilities in the country already feel too heavily invested in natural gas. Although natural gas is currently cheap, utilities feel over investment is too risky. Therefore at some point the market will demand more diverse generation. Wind is seen as one of the most viable resources. However the boom and bust cycle in the market resulting from non-extension of the PTC will be very damaging to companies currently invested in construction and manufacturing. A smooth phase out overtime would allow for healthy planning and transition.
Internationally, there are several countries that are moving ahead with floating platform projects. They include Portugal, Japan, Norway, and the United States. Since the 2011 tsunami, Japan has gotten very serious about finding an alternative to nuclear power and investing in floating wind platforms.
The U.S. Department of Energy will soon make several awards of $50 million for offshore wind projects that include applicants for floating projects from Maine, California, Oregon (Principal Power), Hawaii, and the Great Lakes. Additional fixed foundation projects have applied as well from many other states.
The StatOil wind turbine needs approximately 80 meters of water to assemble in standing position. The original test project in Norway was assembled in a fijord where there was sufficient water depth. Maine also has a location that would fit this requirement. In each of these cases, it would be better if the turbine could be built on land at an incline and become vertical in the water at open sea. This is the spar buoy design. The Portuguese project, a wind turbine built on a semi-submersible floating platform involving Principal Power was built in a dry dock, launched, and towed into position.
There are many possible partners in Maine who can be involved in the construction of the prototypes and floating turbines. Among 3 major deep water ports, there is available property for development. The most significant of which is Sears island, adjacent to Searsport, with a possible 300 acre site that could be used for more permanent construction if there is sufficient market. There will need to be wind turbine assembly, parts transportation and a shipbuilding facility with either a dry dock, slipway or coffer dam for construction. The solution has yet to be worked out. MWII has worked with a number of local firms to develop potential scenarios for a limited build out and fully dedicated facilities
The Atlantic Wind Connection project offers an important opportunity to provide the transmission line for wind farms to connect to several states and not just one. By building an offshore transmission cable that is buried 6 feet under the seabed, it is likely that public approval will be easier to obtain. Such a construction is very secure. Aside from the potential for offshore wind, building a new transmission line between New Jersey and Virginia produces a new construction that can replace an increasingly antiquated grid system on land that is causing increasing power outages to Atlantic Coast customers. A similar project called the Greenline has been proposed between Maine and southern New England.
We have to recognize that the initial cost of power will be high until economies of scale bring these costs down to market competitive levels. The StatOil Project is projected to cost 29 cents per kilowatt hour and the Cape Wind Project for an offshore wind farm will cost in the region of 21 cents per kilowatt hour. The Maine legislature recognized that the potential of wind power can ultimately reduce the cost of power to Maine consumers. It instructed the Public Utilities Commission to negotiate power purchase agreements at higher than market rates in order to allow for new wind projects. This allows them to develop the economies of scale so as to eventually become competitive. The legislature recognized the economic and jobs potential for Maine shipbuilders, suppliers, and designers to create a new industry based on Maine’s historic seagoing heritage.
One of the greatest challenges to getting the price down is the cost of capital. This requires a governmental role in supporting infrastructure investments such as offshore wind platforms that have the potential for creating new renewable energy at competitive rates and without supply fluctuations, shortages and carbon emissions that contribute to global warming. As the utility rates in the North-east are the highest in the United States, harnessing Maine and New England’s wind potential is a good long term investment in the future. If you look back at history, you will see that the Federal investments in dams and hydroelectricity for the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Hoover Dam, and the Bonneville Dam created a new, publicly supported power generation that boosted the economies of the regions served. by the dams. If we do not make a similar investment in wind power for regions of theUnited Statesthat can create new economic development for Maine and other Atlantic Coast States then we will all suffer. We lose the ability to progress, then we slip even further behind than we have already during the current economic downturn.