PORTLAND, Maine — Maine utilities regulators want more out of a long-term agreement to buy power from a wind project in Somerset County, but are nearing a deal in the case that sparked controversy from wind industry advocates.
Maine Public Utilities Commissioners David Littell and Carlisle McLean agreed a deal was near with NextEra and ordered the PUC staff to continue negotiations, particularly over risk-sharing terms commissioners said were new to such a long-term contract.
The decision comes after renewed review of an extended 25-year contract term with NextEra for its 44-megawatt Highland Wind project in Somerset County. The initial terms called for NextEra to charge 4.7 cents per kilowatt-hour over 20 years.
SunEdison in May pulled its 73-megawatt Weaver Wind project in Somerset County from consideration in response to the commission’s decision to reopen negotiations.
The vote by Littell and Carlisle on Wednesday sets the new contract on the path to approval, if the company complies with changes to still-confidential portions of the contract. With those changes to the contract terms still in flux as recently as Tuesday, McLean said her analysis leads her to believe the deal is heading toward approval.
The vote Wednesday directs PUC staff and NextEra to modify the terms and bring them for final consideration in a future vote. That vote would be limited to whether the terms align with the changes requested by Littell and McLean.
Those terms deal with the degree to which the utilities the PUC directs to enter the long-term deal or NextEra would bear risk associated with times where the regional grid operator directs the company not to generate power.
Commission Chairman Mark Vannoy split with Litell and McLean, arguing that the 25-year term would expose electricity ratepayers to risk of higher costs in the long run, with the belief that natural gas prices in New England will approach and reach those near the Marcellus Shale fields in Pennsylvania.
“I believe this is where restraint is the correct approach,” Vannoy said.
The decision to reopen negotiations on the NextEra term sheet and another from developer SunEdison was one of McLean’s first after her appointment by Gov. Paul LePage, raising allegations from Democrats and the wind industry that her vote had political motivations tied to LePage’s dislike for wind power, which she denied during deliberations before that vote.
Outgoing commissioner Littell, appointed by former Democratic Gov. John Baldacci, has been a consistent supporter of wind power. Vannoy has generally opposed directing utilities to enter long-term contracts.
Vannoy and McLean said in February that the PUC should reconsider terms of the long-term wind contracts based on a sharp decline in natural gas and oil prices since its initial analysis of the two proposals.
Those analyses have also become a subject of dispute on the commission, with Vannoy and McLean voting down Littell’s request to make its power pricing scenarios public.