Listening to the public conversation about Statoil’s decision this fall to abandon its Maine offshore wind project and the general handwringing about the Maine Aqua Ventus proposal for a similar project from the University of Maine with partners Cianbro and Emera, I’m struck that people are focused on the wrong thing.
Instead of worrying about what the international community might think about Maine, or what energy from the pilot project might cost, or even if we should have renewable energy at all, we should be talking about the potential economic benefit of the various proposals to Maine. As a wind resource-rich state, we need to be strategic in how we allow our resource to be developed.
If we were talking about a mineral resource, you would find that most states view mineral deposits (and oil and gas) to some extent as state property and expect companies that extract the resource to pay for the privilege. In addition, the local landowner gets lease payments and sometimes a share of the revenues.
For wind, especially based in the Gulf of Maine in federal waters, this concept is more complicated. But what is clear is that Maine, through its support of the research and development related to offshore wind at the university, and through its regulatory regime, is enabling the development of this resource.
The question is, what is the payback? One type of payback is simply the value of having renewable energy as a part of our energy equation.
Another part of the payback is jobs. To what extent do the offshore wind projects create jobs? For many of us involved with advocating for offshore wind, this has been the central question. Industry leaders have been working for five years to strengthen our capabilities and our workforce so that many of the jobs related to building wind turbines and constructing wind parks can be performed by Mainers. We are ready.
I recently completed a report for the Energy and Environmental Technology Council of Maine that concluded, among other things, that the entire clean technology sector, including renewable energy, has grown 31 percent since 2003 and is one of the fastest growing sectors in our state. We have significant resources, assets and opportunities, if we want to keep up this momentum.
In this context, the Statoil and Maine Aqua Ventus projects are quite different. Statoil was courted for many years by the university, Cianbro and many others with the expectation that they would support the development of a wind park in the Gulf of Maine and use Maine companies for construction and operations. A year ago, Statoil pulled back from this commitment, and the Maine Aqua Ventus team went in another direction.
Maine Aqua Ventus is proposing technology that is cheaper to build and likely to work better than the Statoil design. But more importantly, it can be built in Maine by Maine workers at Maine companies. The vast majority of the billions it will ultimately cost to build out the full offshore wind park would stay in our state.
Another red herring in this discussion is the price issue. The first car phones were big, clunky and expensive. But over time, technology improvements and volume manufacturing have driven the price of cellphones down so much that almost all of us have one. So, expecting that the first pilot offshore wind installation will have the same price of electricity as technologies that have been around for 100 years is unreasonable. So is refusing to invest in future technologies.
Folks are also getting all worked up about whether wind-generated electricity is used in Maine or elsewhere in New England. This point of view ignores the way our electricity markets work. We are part of ISO New England. So once the electrons are put on the grid, they all look alike, and they are shared throughout the region.
Let’s face it. Statoil had one foot out the door a year ago. Gov. Paul LePage ’s actions, likely based on a general dislike of renewable energy, gave the company a great excuse to leave. They got a better deal in Scotland. And they have left the playing field so that the Maine Aqua Ventus partnership has a better chance of winning the big federal funds and getting Mainers to work. I think we should celebrate.
Catherine Renault is principal and owner of Innovation Policyworks LLC, a Brunswick-based innovation and entrepreneurship consulting company. She served on Gov. John Baldacci’s Ocean Energy Task Force from 2008-2010.