ELLSWORTH, Maine — Recent statements from Gov. Paul LePage regarding wind energy are causing some angst in Maine’s wind power industry at a time changes in Augusta and Washington, D.C., are creating uncertainty over political support for renewable energy.
Since his election in 2010, LePage has questioned the economics behind wind power as part of his administration’s focus on lowering energy costs for Maine ratepayers. But the Republican governor’s rhetoric has intensified in recent months, suggesting that the technology is increasing energy costs and padding the pockets of “special interests.”
“We have people in Maine who say that wind is the answer. And it is the answer for people who lobby for wind,” LePage told a crowd in April. “Wind is costing us dearly. It’s costing us jobs, it’s costing us investment and it’s costing us big.”
Those comments came months after LePage repeatedly suggested that state policies designed to encourage development of wind power were partly responsible for Maine’s higher electric rates — a claim sharply disputed by renewable energy proponents.
More recently, LePage has used the debate over wind power to attack independent U.S. Senate candidate and former governor Angus King, repeatedly calling him “the king of the wind cartel” and suggesting he made “a fortune” on ratepayers backs. King was until recently a large stakeholder in Independence Wind that built the 22-turbine Record Hill wind farm.
While LePage’s statements have been welcomed by wind power critics in Maine, they’ve caused some discomfort in an industry that supporters point out has invested more than $1 billion in Maine — and much of that during a recession. They also suggest the comments stand in stark contrast to LePage’s mantra of being a pro-jobs and pro-business governor.
“The current administration has made some negative public comments which are not conducive to attracting investment and to the growth of the industry in the state of Maine,” said Paul Williamson, director and principal coordinator for the Maine Wind Industry Initiative.
Williamson, whose organization is a coalition of companies, researchers and port authority officials, said LePage’s comments are not factually based.
“Any time you have the top elected official in the state questioning whether wind energy is a good thing in Maine, that creates concern,” added Jeremy Payne, executive director of the Maine Renewable Energy Association, an industry trade group. “However, legislators have been very clear about their support for the industry over the years.”
Maine is New England’s largest producer of wind energy, with 205 commercial wind turbines spinning at seven wind farms built since 2006. Construction of those projects involved hundreds of workers at a time with contributions from more than 300 Maine companies, according to a February 2011 study by Charles Colgan at the University of Southern Maine.
But despite the rapid growth of the industry, wind energy represented just 6.6 percent of the total electricity generated in Maine in January 2012, compared with 25 percent generated by hydropower. And there remains significant debate over whether wind power would be cost-competitive without subsidies, federal tax credits and state policies meant to encourage the development of renewable energy sources.
Kenneth Fletcher, director of the Governor’s Office of Energy Independence and Security, is less brash than his boss in talking about wind energy. But he insisted the administration’s policy has been consistent.
“I think what the governor is saying is if wind power is a source of energy that will lower the price of electricity, then he is in favor of it,” Fletcher said. “Our concern is: is this going to be sustainable over time?”
A big part of that equation depends on what happens in Washington, D.C., over the coming months. Action in Congress has been stalled on whether to renew so-called “production tax credits” that help wind power compete with cheaper fossil fuel-derived electricity generation.
On the state front, the LePage administration has also sought — without success — to rewrite Maine policies known as the “renewable portfolio standard,” or RPS, that require utilities to increase the amount of electricity they receive from renewable sources, such as wind.
Fletcher said the governor argues that both of those policies mean taxpayers and ratepayers are supporting the wind industry’s investment in Maine.
“If the federal tax credit wasn’t there and the RPS wasn’t there, you would not see the investment,” Fletcher said.
Regardless of the political debate over subsidies for wind energy, it is clear that the wind power industry was one of the few bright spots in the Maine economy during the recession.
The nine wind farms built in Maine since 2008 or currently under construction cost $974 million to build, according to industry data.
An independent January 2012 study commissioned by the Maine Public Utilities Commission estimated that construction of half of the wind energy proposals in Maine — or 625 megawatts of wind power capacity — could create 12,000 direct and indirect jobs and add $1.1 billion to Maine’s economy.
“The governor has been very clear about his support for jobs and we hope he will come around to embrace the industry,” Payne said.
One of the companies that benefited the most from Maine’s entrance into the wind energy industry is Reed & Reed, a Woolwich-based firm that has helped build many of the facilities.
“For the past 5 years, [wind power] has been about one-half of our business and that is a sector that did not exist 7 or 8 years ago,” said Jack Parker, president and CEO of Reed & Reed.
The company currently has about 200 employees working on a First Wind project in Hancock County as well as at a wind farm in Vermont. Those jobs range from carpenters and engineers to the skilled operators needed to run cranes with a 300-foot boom.
Asked whether his company could have provided jobs to employees during the recession without the wind power contracts, Parker said simply “not even close.”
Parker steered clear of critiquing LePage’s comments on the wind energy industry. But he said his company as well as others have had conversations with the governor and his advisors about wind power and lowering electricity rates, saying the two are aligned.
“I hope the Maine regulatory environment will remain stable,” he said. “That is certainly critical to the success of the industry.”
Fletcher speculated that some of the angst in the industry has to do with the fact that Maine shifted from a pro-wind governor in Baldacci to one who is more neutral.
“We aren’t against wind,” Fletcher said. “But we are saying let’s be more objective and make sure we understand the economics.”
But some industry representatives question whether the governor and his advisors truly do understand.
Williamson with the Maine Wind Industry Initiative — a coalition of companies, researchers and port authorities working to grow Maine’s wind power industry — said he believes LePage’s comments are based in ideology, not facts.
“It is incumbent on all of us within the industry to educate the governor and the public,” Williamson said.