Habib Dagher has a vision.
- By: Virginia M. Wright
- Photography by: Benjamin Magro
Imagine a wind turbine as tall as the Washington Monument. Imagine its trio of blades, each one the length of a Boeing 747 wingspan, sweeping two acres of vertical airspace.
Now picture that elegant white tower rising from a choppy sea. Imagine it tethered to a string of turbines just like it — ten of them, maybe, or even fifteen. Now connect a second row of turbines behind it. Add another row, and another, and another, and another, until your mind’s eye sees an entire field of swooping blades floating in a vast and otherwise empty ocean.
“This is a one thousand-megawatt farm covering an eight-square-mile area,” says Habib Dagher, the man who created this vision and is now leading a team of engineers, environmental scientists, government policymakers, and offshore construction and energy industry leaders called the DeepCwind Consortium who hope to make it, the world’s first floating wind farm, a reality. “In the Gulf of Maine, that’s like an outhouse in the corner of a football field.”
Make that three outhouses. DeepCwind’s goal is to have three such wind farms bobbing twenty to fifty miles off the Maine coast and generating enough energy to power three million homes by 2030. It’s a breathtaking idea, and still it doesn’t fill the frame that has been drawn by Habib Dagher. He envisions Mainers converting to electricity to heat their homes and power their cars (the cost makes no sense now, he concedes, but it will in two decades, given the price increases predicted for fossil fuels) and the state becoming the Silicon Valley of offshore energy. Towers, blades, and other components will be manufactured right here, using technologies and materials pioneered by the University of Maine’s AEWC Advanced Structures and Composites Center, which he founded and directs.
“We have this huge opportunity,” the professor of civil and structural engineering says. “If we maximize the supply chain and make everything here for Maine and beyond, we will attract $20 billion in private investment and create 15,000 permanent jobs. But we are not going to have this window of opportunity much longer. We’ve got to move very quickly because the Japanese, the Chinese, and the Europeans are already moving on it. We are in a race to build the first floating wind turbine in the United States.” (There are more than one thousand offshore wind turbines spinning off the coast of Europe, but all except one, Hywind, a test turbine in Norway, are in shallow water and embedded in the ocean floor. The United States has no offshore wind farms of either variety yet.)
Wearing a crisp business shirt and tie, the slight, youthful-looking fifty-one-year-old is settling into his office after taking representatives of a Tennessee plastics company on a ninety-minute tour of the structural testing laboratory that has drawn international acclaim for its innovations — products like the Bridge-in-a-Backpack, whose carbon-fiber arches can be transported in a gym bag, yet once inflated and filled with concrete, are stronger and more durable than traditional concrete-and-steel bridge components. The tour was not on Dagher’s schedule — he was pinch-hitting for a sick colleague — but if it caused him any stress, he didn’t show it. Now, as he leans forward to make the case for Maine’s wind power potential, his dark eyes twinkling, Dagher radiates intense, disciplined energy. He clearly relishes his work — the science, the problem-solving, the teamwork, the invention, and, yes, even the selling of visions to lawmakers, grant givers, and journalists. In June, he says, the composites center will open a 37,000-square-foot addition specifically for designing, building, and testing structural components for the deep-water offshore wind energy industry. “We’ll have robotics to manufacture large beams, towers, and blades, and we’ll be able to test them right on the spot because we can simulate the ocean environment. We’re talking about advanced materials built to improve fatigue resistance, corrosion resistance, issues with salt water, condensation, low and high temperatures. It will be the only facility of its kind in the world.”
Coming from almost anyone else, such claims might be dismissed as bravado or, worse, a pipe dream. Dagher, however, has a solid track record of turning theories into reality. “Habib has so many good ideas and such creativity that when he comes to me with a project, I can be pretty certain it’s worth my effort getting support for it,” says Maine Senator Susan Collins, who has helped secure federal funding for several of the lab’s projects, including more than $20 million in grants for wind energy research. “A lot of people have good ideas, but they can’t bring them to fruition. Habib’s ability to develop new ideas and bring them to fruition is nothing short of remarkable. That’s why, when I look at the numerous projects he’s been involved with, the majority of which have been successful, I’m optimistic about this, his biggest challenge yet.”
Should the DeepCwind project endure the inevitable shifts in political, economic, and social currents that lie ahead, it will likely owe its survival as much to Dagher’s people skills as his intellectual gifts. Warm, engaging, and approachable, he has a remarkable ability to distill complex ideas for the layperson, and he does it without a hint of condescension. “He’s very politically astute,” observes William Davids, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at UMaine and Dagher’s former student. “When it comes to attracting support for the university and building a program, he knows what direction to take and how to approach funding agencies. That’s important: You can have a great idea, but if you can’t sell that idea, it isn’t going anywhere.”
Moreover, Davids adds, Dagher “is an eternal optimist. That is a trait that allows him to tackle large, demanding projects. He doesn’t take no for an answer. He’s persistent. He’ll figure out a way.”
UMaine President Robert Kennedy often refers to Dagher as “the University of Maine’s own economic stimulus package” for the way his work with composite materials has elevated the university’s profile. “He’s very creatively used that technology to develop half a dozen to a dozen projects, any one of which would be a significant accomplishment in a faculty member’s career,” Kennedy says. “Not only have these projects received national acclaim for technology development, they have had a positive influence on our society and on Maine’s economy.” Davids agrees, noting, “Habib is always looking for ways to strengthen the economy through the development of new technologies that can be produced in Maine, create jobs in Maine, and give Maine a competitive edge.”
Dagher joined the UMaine faculty in 1986 and says his love for Maine is in part what drives his work. “We’re so lucky to be living here; it is one of the best places to raise a family,” he says. “I want my children and others to have opportunities in Maine. I see [offshore wind power] as a huge opportunity.”
The son of Lebanese parents, he spent his childhood in French Guiana and Lebanon. When he was in his teens he moved to the United States to attend the University of Dayton in Ohio, earning his bachelor’s degree in structural engineering in just two-and-a-half years. During the next five years, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he earned a master’s degree in mechanical engineering and both a master’s and a PhD in structural engineering. “The professors would use his solutions to some of the difficult problems as examples,” says a former classmate, Beckry Abdel-Magid, now a professor in the composites engineering program at Winona (Minnesota) State University. “He is very gifted, very innovative, and very daring. He doesn’t shy away from any challenges. He’s one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever worked with.”
It was Abdel-Magid who introduced Dagher to composites technology, which, simply put, involves the creation of a stronger, lighter structural material from two or more other materials. “I knew he would do wonders with it, and he has,” Abdel-Magid says. Their first collaboration — stronger-than-steel timber engineered with native woods, fiber, and resin — led Dagher to found the Advanced Structures and Composites Center in 1996.
Early in the day in that cavernous lab, Dagher told his Tennessee visitors that partnerships with companies like theirs are key to the center’s mission. “It doesn’t do us any good to have theses that sit on shelves gathering dust,” he says. “We want to make sure those theses are used by someone somewhere to do something. ‘Technology transfer’ are bad words in my opinion because people assume the words mean someone at the university has invented something and is looking for somebody to use it. That’s the wrong way to do it. The best way is to work from day one with a company that needs a real product and wants to get it out on the market.”
The workspace is dominated by a pair of H-shaped structures reminiscent of the Travellifts that marinas use to pull large boats from the water, and a tall stack of concrete modules — “giant Legos,” Dagher calls them — upon which composite inventions can be mounted and subjected to simulated earthquakes, hurricanes, and other stresses.
“We can build a bridge here, one hundred feet long and four lanes wide, and put twenty to thirty years of traffic on it in a couple of months,” Dagher says. “We can build a wind blade or an airplane wing and put twenty to thirty years of wear and tear on it in a couple of months.” He grins. “This lab is designed to manufacture and torture.”
Among its accomplishments: a reengineered hull for the U.S. Navy Seals’ Mark V Patrol Boat. At high speeds, the original aluminum hull smacked the water with literal bone-breaking force. The new composite hull, developed in partnership with Hodgdon Yachts, of East Boothbay, absorbs the shock, sparing the Seals from serious injuries.
“It’s like the difference between you running with aluminum-soled shoes and Nike Air shoes,” Dagher says. The boats are now being manufactured by a Hodgdon Yachts spin-off, Hodgdon Defense Composites.
Another notable invention, field tent frames made of blast-resistant panels, is being tested by the army in Afghanistan, and the Bridge-in-the-Backpack, now licensed to an Orono company, has already been used in six construction projects where it’s proven to be cheaper, greener, and easier to build than conventional bridges. In all, thirteen Maine businesses have been born out of products invented in the lab, and it is credited with improving or expanding the production lines of more than seventy other companies in Maine and beyond. Current business partners, located all over the world, number more than two hundred; thirty-five, including Cianbro Corporation and Bath Iron Works, are part of the UMaine-led DeepCwind Consortium.
Throughout the tour, Dagher rarely used the word “I” when speaking of the laboratory’s accomplishments. “One of the things Habib is known for is the fact that he shares the credit with his team,” Kennedy says. “He’s one of the most modest faculty members you could meet.” Senator Collins tells of Dagher introducing her to students and faculty members whenever she visits and of providing replicas of awards — the center has received many — “to virtually anyone who had anything to do with the invention being recognized.” Abdel-Magid describes him as “inspiring,” with an ability to engage colleagues and students in a project. “He knows how to best use their different capabilities,” Abdel-Magid says. “He excels at bringing people together to work on a project.”
Indeed, Dagher identifies teamwork as the foundation of the center’s successes. The 150 students who work here represent more than twenty academic concentrations. They are treated as employees; they must meet deadlines, and they are paid for their work. “One of the big issues in product development is that the team that’s going to build it is not the team that designed it,” he says. “What makes us unique is we put all these teams — the structural experts, the materials experts, the lab to make it, the lab to test it — under one roof with one project manager. Our purpose is to bring people together. Our motto is ‘none of us is as smart as all of us.’ ”
A little more than a year from now, the DeepCwind Consortium expects to place a floating wind turbine three miles off Monhegan Island, the narrow, one-and-a-half-mile-long mound of meadows and forest that has been the muse of countless painters for 150 years. “It is a one-third scale unit,” Dagher says, “and it will be in the water from July to November. This is a test run, to look at durability, operations, control systems, and environmental impact. We have a large team doing environmental studies, not just looking at birds and migratory patterns, but effects underwater, too, on lobsters and anything that lives there. We’re very concerned about environmental impact, and we are working hard on those issues. The plan is to put the turbines in a place that minimizes impact.”
Other than the Maine Energy Marketers Association’s opposition to last year’s legislation fast-tracking the recommendations of former Governor John Baldacci’s Ocean Energy Task Force, DeepCwind has had few detractors so far. In part, this is because it is so early in the research phase; fishermen’s organizations and environmental groups, for example, have expressed cautious support while they await data. And by its very nature, DeepCwind avoids some of the issues raised by land-based wind farms and shallow-water turbines. “We love the beauty of the Maine coast and we don’t want to change it,” Dagher says. “By going twenty miles offshore, because of the curvature of the earth, you won’t see the turbines and you won’t hear them. We’ll have better wind, and we can float the structure so we don’t have big foundations in the seabed, which is very costly.”
A U.S. Department of Energy map quantifying those better winds is what fired Dagher’s imagination in the first place: 8 percent of the country’s annual one terawatt offshore wind capacity is off the coast of Maine. “When we found that out a few years ago, we were astounded,” Dagher says. “That’s like saying we have 8 percent of the oil reserves in the country. What we have offshore dwarfs any other resource we have in Maine. It’s our biggest renewable resource.”
The challenges are many, not least being financial. The research and development phases depend on federal Department of Energy funding, which means the project requires a sustained commitment to a renewable energy policy, something that has eluded this country so far. The wind farms themselves, however, will be commercial enterprises.
A more immediate concern is how to design and stabilize the turbines. Norway’s two-year-old Hywind, which has an enormous keel and is tethered to the ocean floor with cables, is the only real-life model. (“It was so stable,” marvels Dagher, who viewed the test turbine from a boat in six-foot waves two summers ago. “We had to hold on for our lives, but the turbine was not moving at all.”) However it is steadied, Maine’s turbines will be built in dry dock and towed out to sea.
Dagher readily says that offshore wind is only one piece of a renewable energy mosaic that could include solar, tidal, and wave energy, but it could be the biggest piece by far. “It’s one thousand-to-one bigger than tidal,” he says. “It’s huge. It has the potential to change the state, but we have to act quickly and deliberatively.”
The DeepCwind Consortium Timeline
2011-2012 Build offshore wind laboratory at UMaine. Design, build, deploy, and test one-third scale floating wind turbine prototype in the Monhegan test site.
2012-2014 Design, build, deploy, and test the first full-scale (three hundred feet to the hub) floating wind turbine prototype (three to five megawatts).
2015-2016 Design, build, deploy, and test the first twenty-five megawatt stepping-stone floating wind farm in the world (five, five-megawatt turbines), twenty to fifty miles offshore.
2018-2020 Expand stepping-stone farm to a five hundred to a thousand megawatt commercial farm.
2020-2030 Build a network of commercial floating farms with a four thousand megawatt capacity. Each farm will be five hundred to a thousand megawatts with a goal of four to eight such farms. Each thousand-megawatt farm will cover about eight miles by eight miles.
- By: Virginia M. Wright
- Photography by: Benjamin Magro