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Midcoast offshore wind project could help power Maine

The wind turbines would stand 600 feet tall and would float off the coast of Maine.

PORTLAND, Maine — Chris Wissman sat on the Portland waterfront on a foggy morning, sounding both impressed and optimistic about building the country’s first floating offshore wind turbine off the coast of Maine.

“Put this next to the Empire State Building — its two-thirds the height of the Empire State Building,” Wissman said.

The New England Aqua Ventus project has two primary components: the tower, with the turbine on top, and the floating platform it sits on.

Both will be huge, he said.

“So this scale is almost unbelievable. [The platform] is 15,000 tons of concrete and rebar, with three arms, shaped like a 'Y' in three directions, a football field across."

He explained the structure will be built of three, massive concrete cylinders, all connected, that will stand 80 or more feet high on land. However, about two-thirds of that structure will float underwater when complete.

Mounted on top will be the biggest wind turbine built in Maine, and one of the biggest in the country.

“And part of the idea is these turbines can be anywhere from 600 to 800 feet tall, and that’s part of the idea to be that far offshore where no one can see them.”

This first floating turbine, however, will be very visible. It will be located about 11 miles out to sea from the Boothbay-Pemaquid area of the midcoast, and just over two miles off Monhegan island, a popular summer destination for tourists and artists, with a year-round population of 64 in the last census.

The location was chosen more than a decade ago by the Maine Legislature as a test site to build the first floating offshore platform, using technology developed by the University of Maine.

After years of engineering studies and tests, and two unsuccessful efforts to secure a route for the underwater cable, the project now appears on track. Wissman predicts it will be built as early as 2025. 

“I’m highly confident this will happen,” he said.

“This project fits right into Maine’s plan of one, 10, 100. First one turbine, then 10 turbines, then commercial scale.”

Expanding to a large, commercial-scale development in the Gulf of Maine is likely many years in the future, Wissman admitted, although the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is already working on plans to sell ocean leases in the coming years for others to develop the offshore wind resources as a way to generate electricity with no climate-harming fossil fuel emissions.

Developing offshore wind power is a major piece of Maine’s climate plan, and Governor Janet Mills has already designated a site far beyond Monhegan, 20 to 30 miles out to sea, to create a “research array” of floating turbines. 

The proposal originally suggested the development could start in 5 years, but that time frame is far from clear. That area of the ocean is federal waters, and the state has asked the federal government to approve the site for the purpose before any other private entities can seek leases.

Wissman is CEO of Diamond Offshore Wind, a subsidiary of Mitsubishi Corporation, which is also partnering with RWE Renewables of Europe to build the Monhegan project using the UMaine platform designs.

“Both companies are part of the worldwide movement of traditional power companies migrating from fossil fuels to renewables,” Wissman said, agreeing that the two large corporations clearly see potential in future commercial offshore wind development.

“Offshore wind started with fixed foundations in shallow waters, and it's gone to deeper and deeper water,” Wissman explained. “But we don’t have enough shallow water real estate available. So the normal migration is to go farther offshore into deeper water, and two-thirds of the power available from offshore winds is in deeper water that can only be satisfied by floating turbines. “

And the Gulf of Maine, which Sen. Angus King has called “the Saudi Arabia of wind," is only suited to float platforms, according to Wissman. 

That makes the Monhegan project an important test of the technology.

But it's also a test of whether that technology can co-exist with the Gulf of Maine’s fishing industry.

Maine lobstermen, in particular, have been strongly opposed to floating wind turbines. 

In 2021, there were multiple rallies and demonstrations by fishermen against the Monhegan and future wind projects, claiming they will cut lobstermen off from some of their valuable fishing grounds. 

That opposition is primarily aimed at the research array because the Monhegan project falls inside the special restricted lobster zone, which is reserved for the lobstermen on Monhegan island. 

Wissman said his company is negotiating an agreement with those fishermen, but would not say what it is.

Near the end of the 2021 legislative session, lobstermen, lawmakers, and the Governor negotiated a compromise bill to ban all future wind development within the three-mile limit of state waters, give fishermen a place on a special committee developing policies for offshore development, and allow the Monhegan project to keep moving.

Chris Wissman said he believes fishermen and the floating platforms should be able to co-exist.

“Now the reality is you can lobster up-close and personal to this. This doesn’t really impact lobstering much. We see lobstermen operating 10 feet off the rocks, they can lobster 10 feet off the hulls [floating platform]."

Asked about fishermen’s worry over large exclusion zones around the platforms, Wissman said he doesn’t plan to require those.

He pointed to the Block Island Wind Farm off Rhode Island, saying there have been few problems for lobster and other fishermen. However, those turbines are fixed to the bottom of the ocean and do not have large mooring chains that are planned for the floating platforms. 

Lobstermen have said their traps and ropes are likely to get tangled in those chains if they are allowed to fish the areas at all.

“The mooring cables are pretty much static hanging in the water column and the plan is to have them be part of the research,” Wissman said. “Well marked by GPS and potentially with buoys, and that’s part of the interaction with fishermen”

Many lobstermen, however, remain skeptical, at least — some even suggesting the current federal effort for stronger right whale protection regulations will be used as an excuse to move fishermen out of the water to make room for wind turbines. 

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The Monhegan project, meanwhile, is inching forward. The Maine DOT has assembled a task force to choose the best location to build a port for building and servicing offshore wind platforms.

Wissman said Diamond Offshore and the UMaine’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center are continuing to develop the plan for precisely where and how to build the first floating platform. 

He said the project begins its federal and state permitting process this winter. It will include environmental impacts on birds and other marine and mammal life. Wissman said a lot of those studies were done several years ago and should be able to inform the process now.

Once permits are granted, he said, construction can begin.

“2024. that’s the plan.” He said it may take a long time to build the first one, partly because they have not yet created efficient building facilities.

“A couple years. That’s the issue, can we compress it to a year?”

When asked if he thinks it will be about 2026 or 2027, Wissman quickly answered.

“Oh, before that, it will be 2025 or '26."

Then he added he thinks in that timeframe, the giant structure will be out at sea, on the water, beginning to answer the many questions.

The project has secured a 20-year power purchase agreement through the build, the giant wind turbine is expected to remain in operation to repay the investment. Wissman said they expect it will cost well over $200 million to build the 12-MW turbine, tower, and platform.

The primary purpose of the project is not to make money, however, but to show the UM design works that it is a stable platform for wind turbines in the often- hostile ocean environment.

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