After legal challenge, Maine utility regulators again OK $333 million partnership between Emera, First Wind

Posted July 22, 2014, at 3:42 p.m.
Last modified July 22, 2014, at 6:06 p.m.
Turbines on Heifer Hill that are part of the Bull Hill Wind Project put up by First Wind in Township 16, seen here February 2013.
Gabor Degre | BDN
Turbines on Heifer Hill that are part of the Bull Hill Wind Project put up by First Wind in Township 16, seen here February 2013. Buy Photo

PORTLAND, Maine — The Maine Public Utilities Commission voted 2-1 Tuesday to allow Emera Maine’s parent company to invest $333 million through a joint venture with wind farm developer First Wind, a deal that was sent back to the commission for further review after a Maine Supreme Judicial Court decision.

Deliberations in the case Tuesday centered on whether the financial relationship would create favoritism of any kind between the power-generating entity and the Maine transmission and distribution utility Emera Maine, which is owned by Nova Scotia-based Emera Inc.

“To use an familial analogy, this would be a second-cousin corporation and First Wind would be the spouse,” said PUC Commissioner David Littell during deliberations Tuesday.

That partnership first approved in 2012 involves Emera Inc. subsidiary Northeast Wind taking a 49 percent stake in the company JV Holdco, which would have ownership of certain First Wind projects. The Ontario-based Algonquin Power & Utilities Corp. would also have a stake in those projects.

The renewed approval stands to bolster First Wind’s financing for projects in the state. As an indication of concern over the impact the court’s ruling would have on First Wind’s projects, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection asked the company to again file documentation proving it had access to money required for developing, maintaining and decommissioning its projects.

Opponents of the partnership wrote in briefs filed with the PUC that a partnership between an Emera entity and First Wind would violate Maine’s deregulation of the power industry in 2000, which generally prohibits transmission and distribution utilities like Emera Maine from owning electricity generation resources.

Commissioner Mark Vannoy, the lone dissenting vote of the three commissioners, argued that the conditions of the measure serve to mitigate the risk of favoritism among the utility and power generator, but that those conditions do not eliminate the influence of the financial interest and thereby violates the test the court laid out.

“It’s a very difficult enterprise for a regulatory body to build in an incentive and acknowledge it exists and then dampen it with conditions,” Vannoy said. “The simple conclusion is that a financial incentive exists to favor a certain generator.”

Vannoy said it is not the PUC’s task to evaluate whether such favoritism would occur but whether the structure of the deal creates a prohibited interest.

The court decision ordered the PUC to determine when a financial relationship is sufficient to give a transportation and distribution company an incentive to favor one power generator over another.

The company expressed confidence to the DEP that the $333 million investment from Emera would move ahead to support part of its projects in Oakfield, Hancock and Bingham.

That funding would in turn become a part of the financing for First Wind’s projects in Oakfield, Hancock, Bingham and perhaps others.

Emera and First Wind were cautious about declaring the vote Tuesday as a victory. Representatives from both companies said it’s premature to comment on the decision until they have the PUC’s order in writing. That order will include other conditions that aim to mitigate any influence the investment would have over Emera or Emera Maine’s transmission and distribution planning.

A spokeswoman for Emera and spokesman for First Wind both said in emails that the result of deliberations Tuesday were “very encouraging.”

Tom Welch, chairman of the commission, cast the deciding vote. That breakdown mirrors some past commission votes on wind energy proposals, with Littell generally in support and Vannoy opposing.

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