Principle Power came to Maine from Seattle in 2008 with the hope of testing an innovative floating wind turbine off the coast, in a demonstration project with partners that included the University of Maine. But the company abandoned the plan two years later, citing the state’s parochial politics and what its president says were unreasonable conditions demanded by the university.
“If you come to a market and the playing field’s not level, you can’t do anything,” said Alla Weinstein, Principle’s president and chief executive. “The university and state politics are preventing Maine from capitalizing on its resources.”
Now UMaine and Principle Power are having a second encounter, this time as direct rivals.
Principle is the top competitor to a university-led venture for up to $47 million in matching federal energy funds to demonstrate the technology for next-generation offshore wind turbines. Principle’s project, called WindFloat, would be located 15 miles off Coos Bay, Ore. UMaine’s design, called VolturnUS, would be in state waters near Monhegan Island.
Both ventures need the government money to move ahead. Each made a pitch last month to a forum that included government energy officials at the industry’s Offshore Wind Power USA conference in Boston.
Principle Power’s falling out with Maine also foreshadowed a more significant and more public dispute Maine had last year with Statoil, the Norwegian energy conglomerate. Statoil canceled a planned $120 million wind farm last fall after Gov. Paul LePage intervened on behalf of the University of Maine venture.
Taken together, these incidents highlight how much is at stake for Maine, beyond the grant competition.
Buoyed by passage of the Maine Ocean Energy Act in 2010, the university, along with many politicians and business leaders, have been promoting Maine as a research and development hub for offshore wind power. They see a potential to create thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in investment. After the departures of Principle and Statoil though, that promise rests entirely with VolturnUS for now.
That didn’t have to happen, according to Weinstein. Compared to Oregon, she said, the Maine coast has a better wind resource, is closer to population centers for power sales and has a cluster of businesses skilled in heavy, industrial fabrication.
“No one is going to come to Maine unless things are changed,” Weinstein said.
After leaving Maine, Principle shifted its attention to Portugal, where it built the world’s second floating wind turbine in 2011.
Behind the competition is the quest for a better, made-in-America solution for offshore wind power.
Europe has hundreds of offshore wind turbines, mostly in shallow water on steel towers buried in the seabed. But the U.S. Department of Energy is looking for new designs to radically cut the cost of wind energy. One answer may come from turbines that float far offshore, where the wind is stronger and steadier.
Notably, three of the seven finalists that were awarded preliminary $4 million federal grants are floating designs. Statoil, which launched the world’s first floating prototype off Norway in 2009, was one of them. But Statoil’s withdrawal from Maine leaves WindFloat and VolturnUS as floating project competitors.
The deadline for applications passed in late February, with the university-led team submitting 7,000 pages of confidential documents. It expects the Energy Department to make a decision in May. But the department will only say publicly that it will decide sometime this year, and it declined to discuss the evaluation process.
It does say up to three projects that can be in commercial operation by 2017 will be selected. Each would be eligible for matching funds up to $47 million.
ROOTS OF THE RIVALRY
Principle’s dispute with the university dates back to 2008, when the school’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center got a $1 million federal grant to evaluate several floating platforms. Principle’s design didn’t make the cut, an outcome that Weinstein attributes to the center’s director, Habib Dagher.
Dagher is the charismatic professor leading Maine’s offshore wind ambitions. His endorsement was needed in 2009, Weinstein said, when Principle was looking for support from the Maine congressional delegation on a proposal to feed power to the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery from an offshore demonstration site. Dagher personally pledged his support, Weinstein said, but the letter he wrote to the delegation included demands that the university receive certain valuable benefits from any project that went forward. The project never gained traction.
Dagher’s recollection of events is different. The floating platform evaluation was done by a panel of experts, he said. The panel didn’t select Principle’s design, he said; the university just acted as a facilitator. Dagher added that while he had no direct involvement in the Portsmouth shipyard idea, he does recall Principle seeking his support.
“We put in a good word for them,” he said.
Jake Ward, UMaine’s vice president for innovation and economic development, said the university contacted Principle Power, Statoil and a design and engineering firm known as Glosten Associates in 2012 to suggest that the three companies cooperate with UMaine to submit a single floating turbine proposal, demonstrating different platforms to the energy department. The companies chose not to do so, Ward said.
Dagher played down the rivalry between Principle and UMaine, saying all the projects are strong competitors. And he sought to minimize the importance of Maine losing both Principle and Statoil, noting that the other five states in the competition each have only one project. The Department of Energy, he said, will pick the best projects that can lower the cost of commercial, offshore wind power.
“We have a strong case,” he said.
MAINE’S MATERIALS UNIQUE
In narrowing the field, the energy department picked six finalists that cover the coasts and the Great Lakes. They include four projects that use wind turbines on steel towers set in foundations off the coast of New Jersey, Virginia and Texas, and in Lake Erie.
The Maine venture, officially Maine Aqua Ventus, is led by a for-profit spin-off that includes the university and two general partners, Maine-based Cianbro Corp. and Emera Inc. of Nova Scotia. They propose a full-scale, pilot wind farm consisting of two turbines, each with a capacity of six megawatts that could power 6,000 average homes a year. Last May, the partners launched a one-eighth-scale model off Castine.
Maine’s design is unique. Instead of steel, the unit is made of advanced composites and concrete. These materials reduce weight and resist corrosion. They also lower the cost of production. Building with steel is too expensive, Dagher said, which is why commercial shipbuilding has gone overseas.
Principle Power doesn’t hold that view and its prototype is made of steel. But Principle and Maine Aqua Ventus share some key design methods. Both models were built onshore and towed out to sea, fully assembled.
Both projects will be connected to the mainland power grid. The Maine project already has a power purchase agreement with utilities, which is critical for winning any money. Principle says its power-purchase negotiations are ongoing.
It has teamed up with major partners, including Siemens Wind Power, Houston Offshore Engineering and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.
Principle’s experience in Portugal also has given it an edge on expanding its technology elsewhere. It is working on proposals in the United Kingdom and Japan.
POTENTIAL BENEFITS FROM BOTH
It’s not clear how these factors will influence the energy department’s selection process. In general, lowering costs through technical innovation tops the list, Dagher said. Other priorities include the ability to be on line in 2017, securing a power-purchase agreement and obtaining necessary permits.
An open question is whether both projects could win grants. Dagher said he thinks it’s possible. Weinstein said she couldn’t guess.
But Paul Williamson, director of the Maine Ocean & Wind Industry Initiative, a trade group representing wind-related businesses, said funding both projects could improve the chances of tapping into the robust wind resources found in deep water. In time, he suggested, a design could evolve that mates Maine’s cost-saving concrete technology with Principle’s dynamic hull system.
“The country could really benefit from having both these projects advance,” he said.
Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at: