A University of Maine offshore wind demonstration project is set to gain a $40-million commercialization grant from the U.S. Energy Dept. after the agency opted late last month to withdraw funding from competitors in Virginia and Oregon whose projects were behind schedule or whose power-production costs were not deemed economically feasible.

Maine's promotion to finalist in the agency's Offshore Wind Advanced Technology Demonstration program follows the successful deployment in 2014 of the 1/8-scale Volturnus model, the first grid-connected floating offshore wind turbine in the nation. The project received a $3-million commitment from DOE when it was named as an alternate tin the program to help achieve commercialization by 2017. 

Habib Dagher, director of the university's Advanced Structures and Composites Center who leads its offshore wind research and development, says his team used information from the 65-ft-high Volturnus model to build on. “We were the first and only team that connected to the grid,” he says. “That was the key milestone that allowed us to learn a lot from our experiment and get to where we are today.”

An independent study by the National Renewable Energy Lab in Golden, Colo., determined that the Maine technology could harness up to 70% of U.S. offshore wind resources, Dagher says.

A $3.7-million DOE award, announced last November, will help underwrite completion of design and permitting for construction of the floating two-turbine, 6MW Aqua Ventus project that will be installed in the Gulf of Maine near Monhegan Island. The project's consortium includes Maine-based contractor Cianbro Corp. and Emera Inc.

“We can begin spending the $40 million after completing the first phase of design, financing and permitting, Dagher says. Construction of the two lightweight concrete hulls is expected to begin in Maine by the first quarter of 2017, he predicts.

In 2014, the Maine Public Utilities Commission approved a power purchase agreement under which up to 43,000 MW hours per year of electricity would be sold to the grid at a price of 23 cents per kilowatt hour.

The patent-pending Volturnus was designed and built at the university,  assembled at a Cianbro facility in Brewer, and anchored for testing off the coast of Castine in 90 ft of water. 

The two additional finalists in the DOE competition include Lake Erie Energy Development Corp., a Cleveland, Ohio-based non-profit group developing the nation’s first freshwater offshore wind farm, and Fishermen’s Energy in New Jersey.

Lorry Wagner, president of the Ohio developer says the award "was a surprise, although we always knew we should be included. It means that we have an opportunity to lead the burgeoning offshore industry in manufacturing and charge to the forefront in environmental and freshwater monitoring.”

But DOE pulled funding from Virginia's VOWTAP project, which would install two advanced-technology, 6-MW wind turbines in federal waters about 24 miles off the coast of Virginia Beach. At peak production, the turbines would generate enough electricity to power up to 3,000 homes. Current bids to build the project range from about $300 million to $380 million, compared with an initial estimate of about $230 million.

"Naturally, we are disappointed in the DOE's decision because we still believe that offshore wind has a great potential to deliver clean, renewable energy to Virginia," said Mary C. Doswell, senior vice president‒Dominion Energy Solutions, in a statement.

But she confirmed that DOE made its decision after Dominion could not guarantee an in-service date for the project earlier than 2020 because of the high cost of the project, the inability to get firm construction contracts, and regulatory complexities.

VOWTAP's other partners are GE subsidiary Alstom Power Inc., that will supply wind turbines;  global engineer KBR; Keystone Engineering, designer of the substructure; the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Newport News Shipbuilding; and the Virginia Tech Advanced Research Institute.

According to media reports, the 30-MW Oregon project, called WindFloat, has struggled to find a buyer for what observers say is relatively expensive power from a five-turbine array about 20 miles off Coos Bay.

Oregon legislators failed to approve a bill that would have required the state’s two big investor-owned utilities, Pacific Power and Portland General Electric, to buy WindFloat’s output, with costs flowing through to ratepayers.

“With additional time, I think there’s a chance something will open up,” Rep. Caddy McKeown (D-Coos Bay), a cosponsor of the failed bill, told Breaking Energy, an online energy sector publication.