Hundreds of people are expected on the banks of the Penobscot River in Brewer on Friday morning to see and celebrate history in the making, as North America’s first floating offshore wind turbine is lowered into the water.

Within two weeks, the unit will be towed 30 miles downriver to a mooring site in 70 feet of water off Dice Head in Castine, then plugged into Maine’s electricity grid with an undersea cable.

The project, called VolturnUS, is 65 feet tall, one-eighth the scale of a full-size floating turbine. Its output will be only 20 kilowatts, enough to power four average homes. But its potential impact, over time, could be enormous.

If the technology is proven in the coming months, it could kick-start a local industry to support a full-size wind park, with hundreds of turbines with rotor diameters larger than a football field floating 10 miles off the coast.

They would tap the robust breezes in the Gulf of Maine to help power New England, at a cost that’s competitive with other energy sources beginning in 2020. Advocates say a deep-water wind power industry could create thousands of jobs and $20 billion in private investment by 2030.

The prototype will be launched at the Eastern Manufacturing Facility of Cianbro Corp., which built the unit. Several government and business leaders are set to speak at the event. 

Five years of research and development, led by the University of Maine-led DeepCwind Consortium, has brought the vision to this point. But several obstacles stand in the way of VolturnUS becoming the catalyst for a Maine-based, offshore energy revolution.

First, it must prove its design concept. Rather than using steel components assembled at sea, the $1 million prototype was put together on land with advanced concrete and composite materials, to fight corrosion and reduce weight. Data from two dozen sensors will help show whether full-scale units can handle the harsh ocean environment and generate power for many years.

Second, VolturnUS must beat out competitors for government money. It is among seven projects nationally that won $4 million each in federal grants last year to help develop utility-scale offshore wind technologies. It’s vying for a follow-up award of as much as $50 million early next year for a project off Monhegan Island.

The $96 million pilot project would feature two, six-megawatt turbines and generate enough electricity for 6,000 homes in 2016.

One of the competitors is the Norwegian energy giant Statoil, which has begun a new testing phase for its Hywind Maine project off Boothbay Harbor. Statoil launched the world’s first full-scale floating turbine in the North Sea in 2009. It’s using data from the experiment to refine its $120 million project in Maine.

Hywind Maine would have four three-megawatt turbines on floating spar buoys anchored to the seabed in 460 feet of water.

Third, VolturnUS must have a contract to sell its power, at rates that will support costs. Project officials are trying to negotiate an agreement with New England utilities in the range of 14 cents per kilowatt-hour.

Statoil already has a power purchase agreement, for 27 cents per kilowatt-hour, that was approved last year by Maine’s Public Utilities Commission. It won out over the objections of Gov. Paul LePage, who said the rate — more than three times what Maine homeowners pay for energy — is too high and the PUC’s agreement with Statoil doesn’t promise enough economic benefits to the state.

Both rates are for demonstration projects. The federal government wants commercial-scale projects that can generate power at 10 cents per kilowatt-hour in 2020, a rate that’s expected to be on par with natural gas and other sources.

“The Department of Energy selected the University of Maine because it’s the only competitor using a concrete floating hull and composite tower,” said Habib Dagher, the professor who heads the school’s Offshore Wind Laboratory.

 

“We’re looking to drive down the cost with concrete technology.”

Fabricating the units onshore and towing them out to sea saves money by reducing the need for heavy equipment to lift turbines 300 feet in the air and attach the turbines and blades. Reduced costs translate into lower power rates.

The VolturnUS unit will remain in sheltered waters off Castine through June, Dagher said, then be towed to a site south of Monhegan Island for two months of tests in the open ocean. Among the biggest questions to be answered is how the floating turbine will respond to motion created by wind and waves, he said.

Winning the next round of Department of Energy funding is critical for the DeepCwind Consortium, which includes business partners such as Cianbro, Bath Iron Works and Iberdrola, the parent company of Central Maine Power Co. The money is a 50-50 match, and Dagher said the consortium has commitments for $46 million in private investment.

Dagher said it’s doubtful that the federal Department of Energy would approve next-round funding for two projects in the same state.

“We’re confident our technology will meet the DOE goal of 10 cents per kilowatt-hour by 2020,” he said. “We think we have a good shot.”

He said the consortium also has several good prospects for long-term power-purchase agreements for the 2016 pilot project. They involve public and private buyers in New England, and would be pegged to start around 14 cents per kilowatt-hour. Talks will continue for the next six months.

A power purchase deal at a rate that’s substantially below Statoil’s 27 cents per kilowatt hour could temper some of the concerns of the LePage administration. Five months ago, Statoil won a crucial power contract that will add 75 cents a month to an average CMP residential bill and total nearly $200 million over 20 years.

Under the agreement, Statoil pledged to locate its project operations center in Maine and try to award at least 10 percent of capital spending, totaling $100 million, to qualified Maine suppliers and contractors. The LePage administration doesn’t think that’s the best possible deal.

“The PUC decision has given a leg up to one technology,” said Patrick Woodcock, the governor’s energy director, of the Statoil rate approval.

Woodcock has been making a case in the Legislature for Maine to rethink the policies that he thinks favor a multinational company over the state university.

“I think we’ve absolutely made the wrong decision,” Woodcock said. “If we’re going to have this industry in Maine, it should be led by Maine companies, Maine innovation, and with assurances that the long-term prosperity envisioned by the Legislature would occur in the state.”

Woodcock’s criticism reflects the administration’s view that higher electricity rates discourage business investment in Maine, which already suffers from rates above the national average.

That view was compounded by Statoil’s acknowledgement last winter that it will be difficult to proceed with the project unless it wins the follow-up, $50 million federal grant.

Kristin Aamodt, Hywind Maine’s project manager, said this spring that it’s too early to speculate about what the company will do if doesn’t get the federal money.

She said the demonstration project won’t be profitable for Statoil; it’s a first step in developing a wind park off the Maine coast with as many as 100 floating turbines that could generate power at 10 to 15 cents per kilowatt hour.

To comply with state and federal regulations, Statoil has been doing studies that include assessing the potential impact on birds and marine life. It’s now mapping the ocean bottom at the test site and studying impacts on boat traffic.

Statoil also is preparing to line up companies that can fabricate the turbine’s substructure, install the transmission line and provide vessels, among other things.

Statoil’s activities, and the in-the-water work about to get under way on the VolturnUS project, could persuade the federal government to fund both projects, said Paul Williamson, director of the Maine Wind & Ocean Energy Initiative. In his view, the ability to share resources and create a cluster of offshore technology development in Maine would create a better investment for the Department of Energy. The department’s decision is expected in February.