Maine’s offshore wind project is worth the risk

Sen. Susan Collins breaks a bottle of champagne on the VolturnUS 1:8 unit before it is lifted into the Penobscot River at the Cianbro Corporation Brewer facility on May 31, 2013.
Gabor Degre | BDN
Sen. Susan Collins breaks a bottle of champagne on the VolturnUS 1:8 unit before it is lifted into the Penobscot River at the Cianbro Corporation Brewer facility on May 31, 2013. Buy Photo
Posted Jan. 15, 2014, at 1:19 p.m.

The only remaining viable offshore wind energy pilot project in Maine may have received a green light from state regulators this week, but it doesn’t mean the turbines will ultimately be built and produce electricity. Many hurdles stand in the way, not least of which are basic opposing views that offshore wind isn’t worth the investment.

It’s undeniable that putting significant resources into developing offshore wind technology is risky. The technology hasn’t been fully tested. Energy from offshore wind is, and will be for years, more expensive than both conventional and other renewable forms of energy. The manufacturing base to produce the needed parts does not fully exist near Maine.

On Tuesday, one of the Maine Public Utilities’ three commissioners, Mark Vannoy, expressed this very fear, that Maine Aqua Ventus GP LLC’s pilot project to launch two turbines off Monhegan is not worth the risk and that future commercial-scale offshore wind energy projects will not be economically viable. The ultimate question is not whether the project can be cost-competitive with other similar proposals, he said, but whether it can lead to full-scale wind energy developments that are “competitive with other forms of energy in the New England market.”

He said he doubted it could become competitive. So why, then, pass on the costs of the pilot project to ratepayers in hopes investors will eventually find the industry attractive enough to provide the private funding necessary to bring commercial-scale projects to fruition? He voted against approving the term sheet for the partnership consisting of construction firm Cianbro Corp., energy developer Emera and the University of Maine.

Putting aside the fact that it’s likely beyond the commission’s purview to make a decision on the pilot project based on its expectation of the economic success of a future project that doesn’t yet exist, Vannoy’s comments prompted a thoughtful debate among the commissioners; similar conversations have likely also happened among residents across the state.

Chairman Tom Welch agreed with Vannoy that there are risks but argued that the Ocean Energy Act allows for — indeed, anticipates — a certain amount risk. He added that Maine’s southern neighbors have an appetite for renewable energy.

In addition, wind can help hedge against electricity price spikes in New England, which is especially vulnerable to such price fluctuations because of severely limited natural gas pipeline capacity.

Vannoy may have presented a plausible scenario, Welch said, but “I don’t think it’s the only one.”

We agree with Welch. The problem with predicting the future is figuring out how you will alter it yourself. Maine has a significant role to play in improving the odds of the creation of a viable industry with the potential to shape the state for generations.

Distributed widely, the impact of the pilot project on ratepayers is about 75 cents per month per home for the life of the 20-year project. Meanwhile, if the pilot wins the necessary funding and permits, it could result in millions of federal dollars and billions of private dollars spent in the state. If the pilot leads to a commercial-scale wind farm, its economic impact would be nearly that of the state’s entire lobster industry. If it doesn’t, it will have still helped create valuable expertise and jobs along the way.

Welch put it well: “There is enough of a chance that there will be significant downstream benefits.” We think it’s worth it, too, to take that chance.

http://bangordailynews.com/2014/01/15/opinion/maines-offshore-wind-project-is-worth-the-risk/ printed on July 23, 2014