The floating wind farm off Maine’s coast could be operational by 2022. The technology could be a model for other states with deep waters, and deep local opposition.

The state with perhaps the greatest untapped potential for harnessing its ocean breezes for electricity could soon have turbines spinning off its coast after years of political resistance.

It’s a small project—two offshore wind turbines serving about 9,000 homes—but it would blaze a new trail: If all goes as planned, in 2022, Aqua Ventus will become the first floating offshore wind farm in the nation.

Less than a year after Democrat Janet Mills replaced Republican Paul LePage as Maine’s governor, state utility regulators approved a contract this month under which the utility Avangrid will buy the power generated by Aqua Ventus. The vote followed legislation Mills signed this summer requiring the Public Utilities Commission to approve the pilot project, which has been six years in the making.

“With this key and long-overdue approval, this cutting-edge demonstration project is now on track to move forward and allow us to harness our own clean, renewable source of energy, create jobs, and strengthen our economy,” said Mills, who has committed the state to 80 percent renewable electricity by 2030 and 100 percent by 2050.

The project is being closely watched up and down the nation’s coastlines.

Conventional offshore wind farms require foundations to be built in water no deeper than 196 feet, limiting the number of sites feasible for construction. Floating platforms would open up site development in deeper waters like Maine’s, and farther away from shore.

The technology could be particularly useful in California and other states that have a lot of coastline but face fierce political pressure to maintain property values, said Clifford Kim, an analyst with Moody’s Investors Service who specializes in wind energy.

“People don’t want to see a big offshore wind turbine right outside their oceanfront property,” Kim said. “It has to be much further offshore. That means deeper water, and fixed bottom technology doesn’t work.”

The project, developed by a consortium led by the University of Maine’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center, will test a floating platform that holds up to two 6-megawatt wind turbines located 12 miles off the coast of Maine. It is expected to begin operations in 2022, a university spokesperson said. The electricity will be carried to the mainland through a cable on the ocean floor.

Floating offshore wind is still a nascent industry. Of the handful of pilot projects testing the technology around the world, only one—Equinor’s Hywind, off the coast of Scotland—is fully operational and generating at least 10 megawatts of power.

In total, the world has 23 gigawatts (23,000 megawatts) of installed offshore wind capacity, most of that in Europe.

The U.S., in contrast, has just one operating offshore wind farm—five turbines that produce 30 megawatts of electricity for Block Island, off the coast of Rhode Island. But eight New England and Mid-Atlantic states have set targets to expand offshore wind power to just over 21 gigawatts over the next decade as they pursue ambitious climate change goals.

If proven sound, Aqua Ventus could help the U.S. play a bigger role in developing floating technology. “It’s the next big leap for offshore wind,” Kim said. “Floating is where the technology needs to go.”

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