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Europe continues to far outpace the U.S. and Canada when it comes to offshore wind projects. In fact, North America has never officially connected an offshore wind turbine to the grid - until today.

At a ceremony off the coast of Maine, officials flipped the switch on the VolturnUS 1:8, a floating wind turbine prototype developed by the University of Maine's (UMaine) Advanced Structures and Composites Center. The turbine's electricity is traveling through an undersea cable and flowing to Central Maine Power's grid.

“Today will constitute a historic moment for offshore wind in the Americas,” said Dr. Habib Dagher, director of the UMaine Composites Center, in a statement.

The 65-foot-tall VolturnUS 1:8 is, as the name suggests, 1:8th the scale of a larger, 6 MW floating wind turbine. Part of a five-year R&D effort, the project is headed by the UMaine-led DeepCwind Consortium and backed by an array of public and private institutions, including the State of Maine and the U.S. Department of Energy.

UMaine says the pilot program will supply data necessary to further the design of the university’s 6 MW VolturnUS turbines. The full-scale models are currently under development, and UMaine plans to deploy two of them by the end of 2016. According to the university, the ultimate goal is to “reduce the cost of offshore wind to compete with other forms of electricity generation with no subsidies.”

Developers’ view
Granted, the VolturnUS 1:8 is only a prototype and a full-scale implementation of the project will likely face some obstacles. Although North America has more than 60 GW of installed capacity from terrestrial wind projects, the continent still awaits its first full-scale offshore wind farm.

Nonetheless, several developers, such as Cape Wind Associates and Lake Erie Energy Development Corp. (LEEDCo), are on the case and working hard to get their turbines in the water. What do they think about the region’s first grid-connected offshore wind unit?

Cape Wind’s 468 MW wind farm is slated to be built off the coast of Nantucket, and Cleveland-based LEEDCo’s proposed 20 MW to 30 MW Icebreaker project is to be located in Lake Erie. While the support structures are different - both developers plan to use wind turbines perched on monopile-based foundations as opposed to UMaine's floating turbine operating without a foundation - both commend UMaine for its efforts.

"It is important for floating offshore wind technology to successfully deploy demonstration projects like the installation in Maine to move that technology further along on its stage of commercialization," Mark Rodgers, communications director of Cape Wind, tells NAW.

Offshore wind projects like UMaine’s are exciting for the emerging offshore wind industry, explains Dave Karpinski, vice president of operations at LEEDCo. "When you consider the technology and all the attention [the project] is receiving, it's a positive for the offshore wind industry, and for offshore development on the East Coast."

He notes that the university’s work with the floating prototype makes sense given the deeper waters located off the Maine coast, but LEEDCo will utilize monopile foundations designed to reduce ice loading.

"While their technology involves the turbine, our innovation revolves around the foundation," he says. "You make do with what you're given."

However, he says, "We'll be watching how the grid connection goes, and we'll be interested in learning about their experience."

Caption: The VolturnUS 1:8 floating wind turbine prototype was launched May 31. Photo courtesy of the University of Maine Advanced Structures and Composites Center.

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