Towns woo, Dagher wows

Offshore wind energy innovator speaks in Belfast

By Ethan Andrews | Jun 01, 2011
Photo by: Ethan Andrews Dr. Habib Dagher of the University of Maine's Advanced Structures and Composites Center addresses a group of municipal officials and members of the public on the topic of offshore wind energy at the Belfast Boathouse Tuesday, May 31.

Belfast — Dr. Habib Dagher of the University of Maine's Advanced Structures and Composites Center opened a talk in Belfast, May 31, with a silent video of a solitary wind turbine bobbing amid choppy waves in a slate-gray sea.

The 30 or so people in the audience included municipal officials from Belfast, Searsport, Stockton Springs and neighboring towns, business people and environmentalists. Dagher asked them to guess where the scene was filmed, how large the turbine was, how hard the wind was blowing, and how high the waves were.

The group improbably guessed the location right away — the North Atlantic, off the coast of Norway — but underestimated the scale of the scene, judging the puny-looking waves to be around 20 feet high. They were 50, Dagher said. The turbine — a prototype that has been in the water since September 2010, stood more than 200 feet tall, from the water to the hub.

The introduction served several points in Dagher's presentation. It was proof that at least one deep-sea, floating, offshore wind turbine exists already. It was also a reminder that offshore wind technologies are being developed around the world and that the United States is not at the front of the pack.

Dagher thinks Maine has a chance to be in the running, not only in the development of new floating turbine technologies, but also in wind energy generation via the strong winds in the Gulf of Maine. But his presentation, while optimistic, seemed to carry the warning that Maine could easily be left in the dust if the state doesn't seize the moment.

UMaine's Composites Center has been at the forefront of new offshore wind technology and under the Baldacci administration there was a strong push to promote wind energy developments, both on land and offshore.

Last summer the state identified a zone south of Monhegan Island as an offshore wind test site, and as Dagher explained, the University has been working through a methodical set of tests and studies, starting with a one-fiftieth-scale turbine, floated in a laboratory in the Netherlands in April, and stepping up in scale to a 100-foot-tall, one-third-scale model, yet to be built, that would be located at the test site off Monhegan Island for a period of four months.

Also last summer, the state issued a request for proposals for a 25-megawatt floating wind farm. Those proposals were due on May 2 and Dagher said at least one oil and gas company — Statoil of Norway — has put in a bid.

Dagher appeared in Belfast at the invitation of municipal officials from Belfast, Searsport and Stockton Springs, who have begun to talk collectively about promoting the region as a hub for manufacturing, deployment and servicing of offshore wind facilities sited in the deep waters 20 to 50 miles off the coast.

The prospects out there, according to Dagher, are huge. Analyses suggest there is enough wind in the gulf to generate 149 gigawatts of electricity, or the equivalent of as many nuclear power plants. By contrast, Maine uses around 2.4 GW of electricity annually, Dagher said.

But electricity is only a sliver of the average Mainer's household budget. A much larger portion — around 20 percent — goes to buy fossil fuels, in the form of heating oil and gasoline. Dagher said that number could climb to 40 percent by 2018.

Dagher, who described Mainers' heating dollars as our "biggest export," said residents collectively spend around $5 billion on fossil fuels each year.

Recouping 20 percent of that amount would be the equivalent of creating 15,000 jobs, he said. The comment drew gasps from the crowd.

So how does wind-generated electricity replace fossil fuels?

Dagher said it would take a major overhaul of the state's existing infrastructure — not at the level of the power grid, but in individual households. In short, Mainers would need to transition to electric cars like the Chevrolet Volt, and replace oil heating systems with electric ones.

Wind energy has been criticized for being intermittent, being available only when the wind is blowing. With no way to store the electricity in the grid, some have questioned whether it is reliable enough to replace other forms.

For all his enthusiasm about offshore wind energy, Dagher said the best future would involve a combination of energy sources, including oil, natural gas, nuclear and renewables like wind, solar, biomass and hydroelectric power. Conservation would also play a part in what he described as the "future energy mosaic."

As for the intermittency of wind-generated electricity, Dagher pointed out that cars are only in use for an average of two hours per day. The rest of the time they could be "plugged in to the Gulf of Maine," receiving power as it came.

Individual homes could convert to electric thermal storage units, which use an electrical element during off-peak hours to heat ceramic bricks, which then gradually release heat over an extended period.

Aside from the local benefits, Dagher said there is money to be made, citing the $200 billion of private capital invested in renewable energy worldwide last year.

"Renewable energy is not just something I do to feel good," he said. "It's business. It's big business."

He cited recent legislation in California that would require utilities in the state to obtain one-third of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020 (In Maine, power companies are currently required to meet a 4 percent renewable energy standard).

"If that's not a gold rush for companies to flock to California to invest, I don't know what is," he said.

Maine not only has some of the best offshore wind potential in the country according to a map produced by the U.S. Department of Energy, but as Dagher pointed out, the gulf is close to some of the most densely populated areas in one of the most energy-hungry countries in the world.

"So what's a good plan in Maine?" Dagher asked, rhetorically. "Let's sell 'em some electricity."

Maine is in a worldwide race to develop new offshore wind technology, Dagher said, but unlike the numerous European offshore wind farms and those being developed in Massachusetts, New Jersey and other East Coast states, where the turbines are sunk in the sea floor at great expense. Maine has deep water relatively close to the coast. Floating turbines could be manufactured on land and towed out to see for a fraction of the cost, he said.

Dagher said the first deep-water wind installations would be expensive, but the investment would be worth it in the long term.

"If you want the cheapest energy next week, build yourself a natural-gas-fired power plant," he said. "But that's not what we're doing here."

Critics have looked at the rates from smaller offshore facilities like the 25 MW development near Block Island, and balked at the prices, he said. Like computers or any new technology, however, the first ones are always more expensive, he said. The price, however, comes down as it came into more widespread use.

"It's almost like saying GM, you're going to make the Chevy Volt, but we want you to build five cars only," said Dagher.

The University's goal is to be able to offer offshore wind energy for 10-cents per kilowatt hour by 2020, which is more than the current rate but less than an extrapolated rate for that year.

Among municipal officials the response to Dagher's presentation was optimistic, even eager.

"Belfast and Searsport and Stockton have pretty much been looking at this and looking at this and wanting to be recognized as a can-do neighborhood," said Searsport Selectman Dick Desmarais. "We have the space for it, we have the deep-water facility and we have the skilled workforce."

Desmarais, who said he was previously familiar with the work of the Composites Center, said he liked what he saw in Dagher's presentation and was glad to see that the University is interested in working with Searsport and the surrounding towns.

Like Desmarais, Stockton Springs Town Manager Joe Hayes was also familiar with Dr. Dagher's work, having toured the Composites Center last fall.

"We're very interested in it," he said. "We're looking at it from a regional perspective. The fact is that Searsport has the deep-water port ... but there could be spin off industries, and the workers would need a place to live."

Belfast City Manager Joe Slocum, who has been outspoken about wanting to make the city a service center for offshore wind development, likened the statewide move toward ocean energy to another time of major change in Belfast's recent history.

"There was a time when people said we understand that some credit card company is going to move to the coast and tear down the chicken plant and create beautiful parks and then turn it over to the city and it seemed pretty far-fetched," he said. "We're in one of those far-fetched settings today."

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