US state of Maine pushes towards large floating wind farms

The first floating wind farm in the U.S. and state actions to bolster supply and demand will help to reduce risks and attract investors to larger projects.

In May, the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) presented a lease to the state of Maine to develop the 144 MW Maine Research Array (MeRA) floating wind project, after an environmental assessment found no significant impact.

In the same month, the BOEM announced plans to allocate eight leases in the Gulf of Maine's deep waters that could produce 15 GW of floating wind capacity, potentially as early as October.

The positive leasing steps come amid softer growth projections for floating wind over the next decade as developers tackle the higher risks and costs of deploying emerging floating wind concepts.

The Maine Research Array will be the U.S.' first floating wind farm and is being developed by Mitsubishi subsidiary Diamond Offshore Wind. Comprised of 12 turbines located roughly 30 miles off Maine's south coast, the project will collate learnings and help to secure investment in larger wind farms.

Learnings gathered from the research array will inform future lease sales and the strategies used by state authorities and developers for larger floating wind projects in the Gulf of Maine, Afton Vigue, a spokesperson for the Governor of Maine’s Energy Office, told Reuters Events.

The research array will help to develop environmental safeguards, supply chain, workforce and build out port facilities "to get them ready for the bigger projects," Habib Dagher, founder and executive director of the University of Maine Advanced Structures and Composite Center, said. The University is developing the design of the floating hull that will hold the turbines.

                                Gulf of Maine proposed lease areas

                                                            (Click image to enlarge)

Source: U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), June 2024.

A successful lease auction by BOEM later this year could lead to the first large U.S. floating wind arrays in the Gulf of Maine within five to 10 years, Dagher said.

“We may be looking at the 2032-33 time frame where some of the larger projects could come into play, maybe a little later,” he said.

Scaling up

The U.S. is deploying its first large-scale fixed-bottom offshore wind farms along the East Coast, building on more than a decade of learnings in Europe.

Deeper waters in the Gulf of Maine and other locations proposed on the West Coast will require floating wind technology but this comes with added complexity and cost.

Floating turbines require innovative floating substructures and optimisation of mooring anchoring and installation logistics, including tow boats. Europe has installed several pilot offshore floating wind farms but no large arrays have yet to be deployed globally.

“The big challenge has been and still is the cost. Floating technology is more complicated and costly than bottom-fixed technology, and this has delayed the implementation,” Kenneth Thomsen, head of division at DTU Wind Turbine Design, part of the Technical University of Denmark, told Reuters Events.

The Biden administration wants to build 15 GW of floating wind in the U.S. by 2035 and has set a cost target of $45/MWh, far below current levels. Lower costs will require huge investments in domestic manufacturing to achieve high production volumes.

“Slow implementation will in turn hinder the industrialization and cost reduction [for] production,” Thomsen noted.

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Developers in the Gulf of Maine will benefit from a pragmatic, step-by-step approach to floating wind deployment.

Benefits of the research array will include optimisation of port facilities, learnings on environmental impacts and permitting, as well as manufacturing and installation learnings, which should reduce risks for future projects, Dagher said.

"Risk reduction in a new industry is key to attract investors and reduce the costs of future larger projects," he said.

Earlier this year, the Maine government allocated a state-owned site on Sears Island to build a $500 million deepwater floating wind port. Construction is expected to start in 2027 and be completed 2029.

Maine Governor Janet Mills has also pushed through policies to support demand fundamentals.

Last year, Mills signed a procurement law that directs the state to secure 3 GW of offshore wind energy through long-term power purchase agreements (PPAs).

California outlook

In 2022, BOEM issued its first floating wind leases to five projects off the California coast aiming to install 2 to 5 GW by 2030, rising to 25 GW by 2045.

However, dwindling grid capacity and slow buildout of supply chain and port infrastructure means California has a long way to go to reach its targets.

                  Forecast annual offshore wind installs in US, Canada

                                                              (Click image to enlarge)

Source: Global Wind Energy Council's (GWEC) Global Offshore Wind Report, June 2024.

The five California lessees are in the site characterization stage, where they will conduct survey activities and collect data on their lease areas to inform a Construction and Operations Plan (COP) to be submitted to BOEM for review.

RWE is developing its 1.6 GW Canopy Offshore Wind farm on one of the lease sites. The developer plans to complete the project by the "mid-2030s" and is currently engaging with local stakeholders, Sam Eaton, CEO, RWE US Offshore Wind Holdings, told Reuters Events.

“The current focus for Canopy is site surveying, which recently commenced and will continue into 2025," Eaton said.

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Due to limited grid capacity, California must invest billions in new onshore power lines to dispatch power to the larger load centres.

California's grid operator CAISO plans to build new powerlines to transport power from floating wind projects but these long distance projects can encounter significant opposition. The lines planned by CAISO will transport up to 4.7 GW of offshore wind, with 3.1 GW in the Central Coast (Morro Bay call area) and 1.6 GW in the North Coast area (Humboldt call area), CAISO said.

Another key issue for California is that much of its waters are far deeper than the Gulf of Maine, creating further design challenges, and developers will not benefit from regional supply chain infrastructure that is being built out for fixed-bottom projects on the East Coast.

In June, California Energy Commission proposed the creation of a “multi-agency permitting approach” to accelerate development and achieve state targets, while also calling for policies that minimise environmental impacts.

The commission also recommended a “coordinated multiport strategy” that could potentially include 16 large and 10 small port sites that would be built over the next decade. Between $10 billion and $12 billion of port investments are needed to meet the 2045 target, it said.

California Public Utilities Commission is expected to set out a clearer offshore wind target later this year.

"We are advocating that the state set a target of 10 GW of offshore wind by 2035, which is sufficient to drive market transformation and reduce the risk associated with early level investments," Eaton said.

Reporting by Mark Shenk

Editing by Robin Sayles