Will Maine Sink Statoil’s Floating Turbine Project?

In the long run, most offshore wind energy is likely be produced far from shore, using turbines that in one fashion or another float. When that happens, will the state of Maine be a leader in the technology? We could find out very soon.

For the second time, the state’s Public Utilities Commission on Thursday will take up a proposed deal with Statoil, which wants to build a four-turbine, 12-megawatt project in an area covering about 22 square miles off Boothbay Harbor, which is about 50 miles up the Maine Coast (as the seagull flies) from Portland, Maine.

(image via Øyvind Hagen/Statoil)

Floating turbine towed into place in 2009 in Norway (image via Øyvind Hagen/Statoil)

When Statoil “Hywind Maine” proposal was considered in October, one PUC commissioner strongly supported moving forward with approval, but two others feared the costs of the project to electrical ratepayers – in the form of power priced at a minimum of $290 per megawatt-hour – would exceed the benefits the state could be assured of accruing from Statoil’s investment.

Statoil has since come back with a revised term sheet, one it says includes “a significant energy price reduction” — $270/MWh.

In addition, the company said it “eliminated the sharing of DOE grant proceeds and instead Statoil will take the entire risk of available DOE funding in order to achieve the reduced Energy price,” and “added a good faith commitment to involve Maine contractors in any future large wind park it develops prior to 2025 along the Atlantic Coast from Maryland to Maine utilizing the Hywind Maine technology.”

The project has the backing of a wide range of green groups in the state, who believe it will lead not only to clean energy but a new industry for the state. Some business interests, however, are opposed. In comments filed with the PUC, the Industrial Energy Consumer Group called Hywind Maine “a single small scale project that, although promising, could quickly be eclipsed by other technologies that address climate change concerns far more effectively and at a substantially lower cost.”

Backers of deep water, offshore wind concede its high present costs, but argue that those costs will come down as the technology is tested, implemented and given a chance to evolve. In fact, a project at the University of Maine, which plans to have a prototype turbine deployed some 10 miles off the coast in just a few months, is promising that their turbines will be able to produce electricity at 10 cents per kilowatt-hour ($100/MWh) without subsidies.

Both Maine projects were among seven from around the nation that won seed funding from the U.S. Department of Energy last month. But in an interview with the Kennebec Journal, a Statoil spokeswoman suggested the company was unlikely to go ahead unless it also had state backing for the project.

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.