Maine, the Saudi Arabia of wind

A university in the northeast United States is aiming to create the first off-shore wind farm in North America.

Maine, a northeastern US state known more for its lobster than renewable energy, is pushing to become a world leader in deep sea wind power.

While Europe has over one hundred off-shore wind farms – some fixed to the seabed and some floating – the United States, perhaps surprisingly, has none at all. That’s right: none, zero, nada.

Professor Habib Dagher is the man behind the mission to build the first off-shore wind farm in North America, which will float in the deep waters off the coast of Maine and provide energy for the state and cities further afield, such as Boston and New York.

“Essentially we’re replacing gasoline in our cars with clean electricity coming off the Gulf of Maine,” Dagher told me. “We’ll be replacing heating oil to heat our homes with clean electricity.”

Test models have performed well in the giant laboratory at the University of Maine, but the real turbines will have to stand up to the bleak weather in this region, where there’s said to be enough wind to power the whole of the United States four times over.

Europe has led the way with off-shore wind farms, but in the States, where there’s not even a formal energy policy, critics like Dan Kish of the Institute for Energy Research fear the cost of developing the farms will be passed onto the consumer.

“It doesn’t happen in a vacuum, since it does cost more ultimately somebody has to pay the cost,” Kish said. “Either the government if it has a lot of money or the consumers if they have a lot of money, or even if they don’t, because the bills are going to go up to pay for it, more than double in some cases, more than triple the costs of other forms of energy.”

Dagher says finding alternatives to fossil fuels is essential and already a $200 billion dollar industry around the world. But just in case things go wrong, Maine’s off-shore wind project is being phased in over 20 years.

“It’s a walk-before-you-run approach. That will reduce those risks,” Dagher said. “Can you eliminate risk from anything you do? You can’t. But can you reduce it and measure it? That’s what we’ve done in our programme.”

For now, huge sections of a wind turbine lie in the test lab waiting to be put through their paces, but it’s out in the weather-beaten Gulf of Maine that they’ll need to perform well if the state is to become what many here are fond of referring to as “the Saudi Arabia of wind power”.

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