Six months ago, a Norwegian company called Equinor submitted a winning bid of $135 million to lease a patch of ocean bottom off Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts from the federal government. It won a similar lease off New Jersey in 2016. Last winter the company submitted a third bid, off New York, and this summer is expected to bid on another round of leases off Massachusetts.

Why all the investment activity? The Northeast coast of the United States could become a second hub for commercial-scale offshore wind power, an Equinor vice president explained, one that could rival its position in the United Kingdom.

Equinor, the international energy giant formerly called Statoil, had planned to build a $120 million experimental floating wind farm off the Maine coast but left the state in 2013, after former Gov. Paul LePage pressed to reopen contract terms. Two years later it erected the world’s first commercial-scale floating wind farm off Scotland, a $228 million project called Hywind. Now Equinor’s proposing to spend billions of dollars for massive wind farms from New Jersey to Massachusetts.

A lift boat, right, that serves as a work platform assembles a wind turbine off Block Island, R.I., in 2016. Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

“We had a very serious player, then called Statoil, ready to make investments in Maine,” said Dave Wilby, a Maine wind energy consultant. “They currently are making investments in the United States, but elsewhere. They’re still close by. They just understood where the investment opportunity was and they followed it.”

As Maine’s energy policy pivots 180 degrees under Gov. Janet Mills, a bill in the Legislature aims to reassert Maine’s role as a leader in offshore energy research and development. But Wilby and other experts say that after eight years of treading water during the LePage years, Maine has missed the boat – or at least risks watching the ship sail away for good if it doesn’t act quickly.

That’s because the billions of dollars of pending investment in near-shore, shallow water wind farms on the East Coast is expected to be repeated within five to 10 years for deep water floating technology. That’s the next frontier, according to Liz Burdock, director of a nonprofit that promotes development of a United States wind power industry and supply chain, the Business Network for Offshore Wind.

“The market is starting to get warmer,” Burdock said. “So now is the time for Maine, if it’s going to be in the game, to get in the game. There is a sense of urgency.”

WIND FARMS ON THE RISE

Much has changed since 2009, when Maine passed its Ocean Energy Act.  The state was a pioneer in 2013, when the University of Maine and its partners proposed a pilot, floating wind farm. But plans to be at full scale by 2016 didn’t happen.

While Maine has been spinning its wheels, turbines have begun spinning in southern New England, launching an industry that Bloomberg estimates could be worth $70 billion in 10 years. Lured by aggressive state mandates to spool up clean energy projects to blunt climate change, European energy companies such as Equinor are bringing turbine  technology refined overseas to American shores.

Detractors downplayed the first commercial-scale offshore wind farm in the United States in 2016: Five turbines off Block Island. But the company’s American developer was acquired last year by Denmark-based Orsted, which is planning large wind farms from Maryland to Massachusetts.

Vineyard Wind also is moving forward with an 84-turbine wind farm, 14 miles south of Martha’s Vineyard. Rated at 800 megawatts, it’s enough capacity to power 400,000 homes. Partners in the $2 billion venture include Avangrid, the U.S. parent company of Central Maine Power and subsidiary of Spain-based Iberdrola, as well as another Danish company.

Vineyard Wind also is expected to join Equinor and two other wind developers to bid on requests from Massachusetts utilities for a second slug of offshore energy, ranging from 200 megawatts to 800 megawatts of capacity.

NEW ENGLAND PORT UPGRADES

These and other proposals are breathing new life into tired coastal cities.

The fishing port of New Bedford, Massachusetts, is in the midst of a $200 million upgrade and has created the New Bedford Wind Energy Center to handle the vessels, equipment and labor needed to accommodate construction and maintenance.

Connecticut is pumping money into the New London State Pier, pledging $35 million in a partnership with Eversource, the regional utility, and Orsted. It’s considered a down payment on a $93 million plan to upgrade the pier to handle turbines, towers and cargo. Gov. Ned Lamont said in May he wanted his state to become “the center hub of the offshore wind industry in New England,” according to the Hartford Courant.

It’s not too late for Maine to get a piece of the action, if it reasserts its interest to the industry, Burdock said. With so much development planned, it will take several ports to meet the supply needs.

“There’s no one ideal port along the East Coast,” she said. “Maine won’t miss out, but it has to do something. A demonstration, or something for the industry to move forward.”

COSTS STALL MAINE PROJECT

The pending Northeast projects share an important distinction: The turbines will be mounted on towers sunk into the seabed, in the relatively shallow waters on the Continental Shelf. By contrast, Maine’s coastal waters drop off rapidly. That’s why the UMaine-led technology has focused on floating platforms that can be anchored in deeper water, out of sight of land and in areas where the wind is stronger.

A one-eighth scale prototype of the Maine Aqua Ventus technology was tested and proven in 2014, off Castine. The full-scale project would involve two 6-megawatt turbines floating roughly 3 miles off Monhegan. But it suffered a major setback in January 2018, when the Public Utilities Commission voted to delay approval of a crucial power purchase contract. That June, it voted to reopen the deal.

At issue is cost. The rate is at least three time above market value, reflecting the custom design and experimental nature of the platforms. It would start at 23 cents per kilowatt-hour in the first year, reaching 35 cents after 20 years. The PUC’s latest estimate is that would add up to $208 million over the term, or about $10.5 million a year from Central Maine Power customers. Maine Aqua Ventus had calculated the extra cost would add 73 cents a month to the average home bill, in the first year of operation.

Maine Aqua Ventus has said in the past that the price will drop with mass production.

But lawmakers aren’t waiting for more clarity on costs. An emergency bill, submitted in the Legislature on UMaine’s behalf, would order the PUC to approve the terms of the contract. The bill had a public hearing on May 16 and was last taken up in committee on May 23. As of Friday, L.D. 994 was awaiting further action in the committee and the full Legislature.

Two representatives of Maine Aqua Ventus testified in favor of the bill at the hearing. Neither Jake Ward, a UMaine vice president, nor Anthony Viselli, manager of offshore testing and design, responded to requests from the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram asking for clarification about costs and other issues.

DIFFERENT TECHNOLOGY, MARKETS 

The project faces longstanding resistance from some lobster fishermen and residents. But the above-market rate was at the heart of LePage’s opposition. The three PUC commissioners at the time also noted that wholesale power rates had fallen since the project was first conceived. For the past 17 months, no action has been taken.

In April, the PUC’s chair position became vacant. In late May, Mills nominated Phil Bartlett, a lawyer who served on the Legislature’s energy committee, to fill the post. He is awaiting confirmation and is expected to be more receptive to clean-energy contracts than his predecessor.

Appointments like this matter because, unlike some energy markets, offshore wind is driven by government policy. All along the East Coast,  state clean-energy laws and mandates aimed at blunting climate change and fossil fuel dependence have compelled utilities to seek proposals for thousands of megawatts of capacity. These will translate into billions of dollars of investment, largely from companies with decades of experience overseas.

The floating offshore market, however, is a bit different. Right now, all the technology is experimental and driven in large part by federal grants aimed at refining cost-effective designs that can survive the rigors of waves and weather far from land. The Maine Aqua Ventus project features a hull platform made of concrete and composite materials designed to survive 70-foot waves and 500-year storms.

Maine can regain its footing, according to Lars Andersen, North American president of the energy consulting firm K2 Management in Boston, because it has a world-class wind resource and is near tie-in points for the regional electrical grid. But it will take at least five years, and maybe 10, for the technology to move from experimental to commercial scale, he said.

“I think Maine will get on the radar screen, but not right now,” Andersen said. “Cost is driving the game. Right now, the focus on the East Coast is the shallow waters.”

Maine’s strongest domestic competitor could be California, where deep water federal leases will be offered next year and companies including Equinor have expressed interest. Other companies that are developing floating platforms, including California-based Principle Power Inc., are teaming up with the Redwood Coast Energy Authority for a proposal in Humbolt Bay.

But Burdock said if Maine is looking to regain its standing, it can look no farther than New Jersey for inspiration.

Former Republican Gov. Chris Christie repeatedly vetoed clean energy bills, including offshore wind efforts. The current Democratic leader, Gov. Phil Murphy, wants his state to get half of its power from renewables by 2030, and is aggressively seeking offshore wind development.

“I think once the industry takes hold, it will outlast politics,” Burdock said.

 


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