By Jason McLure
LITTLETON, New Hampshire (Reuters) - Maine's utility commission has approved a $120 million pilot project to erect four floating windmills in its coastal ocean waters, where wind speeds are stronger and more consistent than on land.
The project by Norway's Statoil, the company that seeks to expand testing of a new technology to allow wind power to be generated in deep oceanic waters, would provide enough power for about 7,000 Maine homes.
The move by the state utilities commission is a first but important step in a lengthy approval process not expected to conclude until 2014. If all goes smoothly, electricity from the windmills could be generated as soon as 2016, the company said.
"Whatever the outcome of the Statoil project and whatever the future for high-wind technology in broader applications, I have no doubt the pilot itself will bring substantial knowledge and experience in offshore development to Maine," said Thomas Welch, chairman of the Maine Public Utilities Commission.
Located 12 miles offshore, each of the 236-foot (72 meter) high towers would hold three 166-foot (51 meter) long blades, and would float in water about 500 feet deep.
Maine's Republican Governor, Paul LePage, blasted the move, saying it would raise the cost of electricity in the state. "This vote will exacerbate our economic challenges, and it compounds Maine's competitive disadvantages," LePage said in a statement.
An undersea cable would transmit electricity from the turbines to the coast of Maine. The company has tested a single prototype of the floating windmill, known as Hywind, for three years in Norway and considers it an engineering success.
Statoil has applied to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management for a lease over 22-square miles (57-square kilometers) of federal waters in the Gulf of Maine near the town of Boothbay.
The area is suitable for the pilot program because of favorable wind conditions and water depths as well as proximity to electricity markets in the Northeast, which could be tapped in the future if the project is a success.
Each of the three-megawatt windmills would sit atop a vertical floating tube that would extend 260 feet below the surface of the sea. The bottom of each tube would be filled with ballast and anchored to the seafloor by three cables.
(Editing by Barbara Goldberg; Editing by Phil Berlowitz)