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Officials: Lost Grant for Offshore Turbines Won’t Take Wind Out of Maine’s Sails

May 12, 2014 - Maine - While people in the state’s business community were disappointed by Wednesday’s news that Maine Aqua Ventus will not receive a $47 million federal grant to develop its offshore wind energy project, many immediately began looking for a silver lining in the U.S. Department of Energy’s decision.

“We’re not 100 percent happy about the outcome – you might say we’re disappointed – however it doesn’t mean the project is over and doesn’t have merit,” Vigue said.

“We’ll continue that effort and work hard. I believe the design and concept is something that is beneficial to the university and beneficial to the state of Maine.”

While Maine Aqua Ventus did not receive the full grant, the Department of Energy will provide $3 million to enable the company to continue the design work on a full-scale project, which is projected to cost $120 million.

Asked if private financing is an option to move the project beyond the design phase, Vigue said it’s a possibility.

“I think there are outside investors in the world that have a keen interest in developing technology like this and we’ll just continue to wait and see,” he said. “But at the same time, you can’t give up. It’s that simple.”

Paul Williamson, executive director of the Maine Ocean & Wind Industry Initiative, was at the American Wind Energy Association’s annual conference in Las Vegas, where the news was announced Wednesday. He also stressed the positive aspects of the news.

While conventional wisdom says that being first to market gives a company a competitive edge, he said, there are potential benefits to Maine Aqua Ventus being able to take a wait-and-see approach. After all, Maine’s offshore wind will always be there, he said.

“Maybe this is a blessing in disguise,” he said. “Perhaps by having the extra time, the opportunity to complete the design cycle as energy markets continue to mature, and with the prospect of additional funding within the next couple years, this will allow the project to mature so it’s ever more successful.

“It does set the project back a couple years,” he said, “and when you look at the competitive marketplace there is some concern for how a setback might affect the project, but sometimes the first ones out the gate are the first to get run over.”

Stephen Van Vogt, CEO of Maine Marine Composites in Portland and executive director of the Maine Composites Alliance, also put a positive spin on the news.

Maine’s composites industry, which got its start in the boat building industry, has much to gain if Maine becomes a global player in the offshore wind industry because composite technology could be used in every aspect of a floating wind farm, from the wind blades to the mooring system.

“Obviously, we’re disappointed we didn’t get picked right out of the gate, but they’re going to fund them to finish the design and if any of the companies fall out, (Maine Aqua Ventus) would be eligible to step up,” said Van Vogt, who also was in Las Vegas on Wednesday for the wind industry conference.

“It wasn’t a complete victory, but we’re still in the game, so we’re reasonably optimistic about that. There will be a floating platform somewhere on the East Coast and it’s important for us to stay in the game,” he added.

Patrick Woodcock, director of Gov. Paul LePage’s energy office, tried to put the news into perspective.

“The initial press release I saw was hugely disappointing,” Woodcock said. “At the same time, any other day the university receives $3 million for energy research is a positive day.”

The competition for the federal grant was fierce, and Wednesday’s news raked up some political embers that had been burning since last fall, when Statoil, a Norwegian company looking to develop a floating wind farm, pulled its $120 million project out of Maine because of what it said was an unstable political situation. Statoil had been the seventh finalist for the federal grant.

Maine Senate President Justin Alfond, after congratulating Maine Aqua Ventus, used the opportunity to blame LePage for hurting Maine’s chances for one of the $47 million grants by chasing away Statoil.

“Maine had two bites at the apple in getting the Department of Energy grant. Then, because of poor leadership and bad politics, Statoil moved their investment and jobs out of Maine,” he said in a prepared statement. “Governor LePage has created a hostile and unpredictable regulatory environment and because of that I don’t know what investor is going to come in to this state.”

Whether politics or the departure of Statoil had anything to do with the Department of Energy’s decision to not reward Maine with a grant is hard to say.

Williamson didn’t want to speculate on the award process, but said investors – private or public – look at the environment in which they would invest.

“You want to feel secure there’s a stable atmosphere where you’re making that investment,” he said. “Most definitely there’s been a lack of stable political support for wind power for the last several years in Maine, and whether or not that’s a major impact or a minor impact, I can’t say. But I can’t imagine it doesn’t factor in their thinking. Investment is attracted to where it’s most welcome.”

Annette Bossler, a Maine-based international business consultant who works in the global offshore wind industry, would not comment directly on why the Department of Energy did not pick Maine Aqua Ventus’ project. But she did offer some insight into geopolitical reasons that may have factored into the selection of Principle Power’s project off the Oregon coast: In November, Japan became home to three full-scale, grid-connected floating wind turbines off its coast.

“I love Maine, but as a country, can we afford to leave the Pacific to Japan for offshore wind? I don’t think we can,” said Bossler, who’s working with a German company developing an offshore wind project in the Baltic Sea. “So I think the fact Japan has three coastal floaters in the Pacific was a factor in the DOE’s decision to support Principle Power.”

by Whit Richardson, Portland Press Herald

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