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New institute says wind power best for Maine

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The Ocean Energy Institute, a research facility first envisioned two years ago by energy banking expert Matthew Simmons, a part-time resident of Rockport, Maine, says wind power makes the most economic sense for Maine.

The nascent institute is concentrating on devising ways to harness the wind power of the Gulf of Maine rather than other energy sources, such as tidal and thermal energy.
George Hart is the chief technical officer (and sole employee) of the institute, which remains a virtual rather than bricks-and-mortar facility.

“If Matt Simmons is at all right about the kind of prices facing us, we have a bad time coming in Maine,” Hart said. Simmons predicted this past spring that oil prices would reach $300 a barrel because the world has passed through the era of peak oil production.

Hart received his Ph.D. from the University of Maine in the 1970s, and later worked in Washington, D.C. at the Naval Research Laboratory and the Missile Defense Agency. Upon joining the institute, Hart undertook a study of Maine’s business and residential energy needs.

“I did a financial energy audit of the state’s energy needs in terms of transportation, heating, etc.,” Hart said. “Then turned to what would make most sense for Maine given the resources we have here.”

Hart found that back in 1998 Maine families spent 15 percent of their household budget on health costs and 7 percent on energy. By the winter of 2008, those costs had increased to 30 percent for health and 22 percent for energy.

“That leaves only about half the budget for things we call ‘living’ such as mortgage, food, clothing and other things,” Hart explained. In 10 years, he predicts 35 percent of a family’s income will be spent on health costs and a full 45 percent on energy costs.

“Twenty percent for everything else? That just won’t work,” he added.

To reduce energy costs, Maine needs to draw on its available resources, Hart argues, and one of those resources is offshore wind.

“Offshore wind dominates by a factor of 50 to 100 what you can get from thermal or tidal power,” Hart said. As an added bonus, Gulf winds increase in intensity during the winter months, a time of year when Maine residents use the most energy.

Thus the Ocean Energy Institute has turned its attention to developing large-scale offshore wind farms in the Gulf to provide electrical power to Maine. Hart estimates that electricity can be generated at $3 to $4 per installed watt, a higher cost than the $2.50 per installed watt produced by land-based wind turbines.

“But one of the benefits of offshore is that it is not in people’s faces,” Hart noted. He said the institute would like to test an offshore turbine array off Mt. Desert Rock in concert with the university and Statoil Hydro of Norway.

“Then we would like to accelerate as much as possible with a commercial project in eight or nine years,” he said.

With George Hagerman, an offshore wind expert with the Center for Energy and the Global Environment at Virginia Tech, now on retainer to the institute, Hart is promoting the concept of offshore wind farms among leaders in the research and political realms of Maine.

“Bob Kennedy [University of Maine president] and I met with Angus King last February and showed him the cost numbers,” Hart said. “I’ve talked to Don Perkins [president of the Gulf of Maine Research Institute], George Baker and Philip Conkling at the Island Institute, Dylan Voorhees and Pete Didisheim at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, and Habib Dagher at the University of Maine [director of the Advanced Engineered Wood Composites Center].”

Producing renewable energy for Maine people at a reasonable cost is not the institute’s only goal.

“It makes sense to make the turbine blades here with advanced composite technology,” Hart said. “The blades are strongest if they are made in one piece [not separated for ease of transport].”

He envisions using space at Maine’s Brunswick Naval Air Station, currently being decommissioned, for construction of the blades, as well as drawing on the expertise of Bath Iron Works and Cianbro Corporation to make the steel turbine towers.

“The key to this is that Maine has all these waterfront assets that aren’t being fully used compared to one hundred years ago,” said Hart. He cites the space at the Naval Air Station as an example. “You need some place to store and stage the turbines when you have to wait for the weather or some other factor. The Air Station is worth its weight in gold as a place to keep inventory.”

While the Ocean Energy institute is still in its infancy, its aims are grand. “The real impact in Maine [of the Institute’s endeavors] will be job creation and saving the $5 billion which Maine residents and businesses spend each year on oil,” Hart said.

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