The Future of Green: Floating Offshore Wind Turbines

Today is the first day of our exciting new blog series: The Future of Green. Every other Friday we will post a blog about a cutting-edge and futuristic innovation in the world of green technology. Technology is one of several barriers that stand between today’s society and a sustainable future. The innovators we highlight through The Future of Green are shattering those barriers. Make sure to tune in every other Friday for a glimpse into the future of energy and sustainability.

To kick off the series, we’ll be highlighting the first offshore wind turbine in the Americas to successfully provide electricity to the power grid. Designed and built at the University of Maine, the “VolturnUS” was first powered up in June in Castine Harbor, Maine.

The 57-foot tower connects to a 20-kilowatt generator, which provides enough electricity to power 4 of 5 homes. The project is still in its experimental phase, and the turbine represents a small-scale version of what the University of Maine hopes to install over the next several years. By 2030, UMaine plans to install 170 6-megawatt turbines in the Gulf of Maine, each with blades longer than a Boeing 747’s wingspan and the ability to power about 2,000 homes.

The VolturnUS is unique in that it floats in about 80 feet of water, anchored by three concrete hulls. Because the turbine can be easily transported to and from land, it is much easier and cheaper to install, maintain and repair. By contrast, European offshore wind farms have typically been drilled into the ocean floor, a process that is incredibly costly and requires specialized equipment. Officials expect the full-scale version of UMaine’s turbines to last 75 to 100 years.

The university will keep VolturnUS in its testing stage in Castine Harbor through May of 2014, subjecting it to the harsh Maine winter. “The best data we can get from that area is in the fall and again in early spring,” said Elizabeth Viselli, spokeswoman for the University’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center. “Over the winter, you see bigger waves and bigger winds. This data scales very well, and can indicate how the full-scale [VolturnUS] will react in those weather conditions.” The full-scale turbines will be built to withstand 60-foot waves at a frequency of about 17 seconds, which only occurs about once every 100 years in the Gulf of Maine.

The university’s offshore wind program represents a real opportunity for Maine. It has the potential to generate thousands of much-needed jobs for a state that is short on economic opportunity. “What’s most important is that we have an opportunity to build an industry in this state,” said Viselli. “And an industry isn’t just one company, it’s many.” The project serves as a perfect example of the economic benefits of renewable energy.

Moreover, it offers a glimpse into the future of energy infrastructure—a future that relies on floating offshore wind turbines that are low-cost and easy to maintain.

In other related—albeit less futuristic—news, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Mangement (BOEM) held its first-ever competitive auction for offshore wind energy leases on Wednesday. Deepwater Wind, based in Providence, Rhode Island, won the rights to the Rhode Island-Massachusetts Wind Energy Area, a 250-square-mile zone located nine nautical miles off the coast.

The recent BOEM offshore wind auction and the University of Maine’s floating wind turbine project represent significant breakthroughs in the US’s transition to renewable energy.

Be sure to check back on August 16th for the second installment of The Future of Green!