LePage must show offshore wind rhetoric is more than hot air

People watch as a crane lowers the VolturnUS 1:8 unit into the water of the Penobscot River at the Cianbro Corporation Brewer facility.
Gabor Degre | BDN
People watch as a crane lowers the VolturnUS 1:8 unit into the water of the Penobscot River at the Cianbro Corporation Brewer facility. Buy Photo
Posted July 12, 2013, at 1:21 p.m.

Gov. Paul LePage this week cheered the Maine Public Utilities Commission’s move to reopen the bidding process that will allow an offshore wind energy pilot project developed by the University of Maine to compete for support from electric ratepayers.

LePage’s energy director, Patrick Woodcock, said in a news release that the move is “critical” so the state can “determine whether additional technologies may meet the objectives of the Ocean Energy Act and provide more economic opportunities for Maine.”

But in this supposed quest for an offshore wind project that reaps the greatest economic benefit for the state, LePage and the lawmakers who caved to his demand might have produced just the opposite result. At best, they’ve created temporary economic uncertainty. At worst, they’ve squandered Maine’s shot at becoming a hub for the evolving offshore wind energy industry.

The Maine PUC in January granted initial approval to Norwegian energy firm Statoil to moor four floating turbines off the coast near Boothbay Harbor and generate 12 megawatts of energy. If the company moves ahead and signs a final contract with the PUC, its pilot project and associated research would benefit from the support of Maine electric ratepayers.

Statoil, which launched the world’s first full-scale floating turbine off Norway’s coast in 2009, planned to make a final decision on its Hywind Maine project next year and set 2016 as the target date for the turbines’ installation.

But the multinational firm, which also has extensive oil and natural gas interests, put its Maine project on hold last week after the state Legislature — at LePage’s insistence — passed a bill that reopens the bidding process under Maine’s ocean energy law. It informed the Maine PUC it’s considering several locations for building its pilot project in addition to Maine.

The bidding process the PUC is reopening is the one Statoil responded to more than two years ago with its pilot project proposal. Now, the PUC is seeking bids again until Sept. 1, so the University of Maine — which passed on the first opportunity to bid and whose project is on a different timeline from Statoil’s — can submit its proposal to moor two, 6-megawatt floating turbines near Monhegan Island and compete for ratepayer support.

LePage predicated his support for comprehensive energy legislation — which contained elements he proposed — on the condition that lawmakers order the PUC to reopen the bidding process. While LePage’s rhetoric has been about offering Maine’s flagship university a fair shot at ratepayer support, his intent appears to be more about advancing a grudge against Statoil.

It’s no secret LePage is no fan of onshore wind energy, and he’s no advocate for ensuring that Maine derive an increasing portion of its energy from renewable sources. But LePage has taken a special interest in Statoil.

In February, he railed against the PUC’s initial approval for the company during his State of the State address. He blasted it as a “job-killing” decision that would raise Maine’s electricity rates and, as a result, diminish Maine’s appeal as a place for businesses to invest.

So when the governor speaks of giving the University of Maine’s project a fair shot, he’s not being forthcoming about his intentions. And ironically, he’s sending the message to a large company prepared to invest $120 million in its Maine project that the investment isn’t wanted.

Woodcock told the Bangor Daily News that Statoil’s decision to put its project on hold was expected and that it showed the company’s commitment to its Maine project wasn’t firm. It’s true Statoil’s commitment wasn’t final, but how can the LePage administration expect a company to commit to Maine when the governor is actively trying to undermine its work?

LePage’s oft-repeated motto “Capital investment goes where it is welcomed and stays where it is appreciated” — which the governor uttered during the same State of the State address in which he lambasted the PUC’s Statoil decision — rings true in this instance.

If LePage has other ideas for business investment that would meet with his approval and that Maine has a reasonable chance of attracting, it’s his responsibility to show leadership and lay out a realistic vision for Maine’s future economy.

If he doesn’t have the vision, he has no place selectively closing the door on investments that don’t match his personal preference.

http://bangordailynews.com/2013/07/12/opinion/editorials/lepage-must-show-offshore-wind-rhetoric-is-more-than-hot-air/ printed on July 23, 2014