July 16, 2018
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How an Austrian wind power company becomes a local Maine business

George Danby | BDN
George Danby | BDN
By Peter Beckford, Special to the BDN

A cold wind is blowing through the land inhabited by Emera Maine ratepayers. First, in through our mail slots comes notice of an 8.3 percent distribution rate increase due to delivery costs of our electricity. Next, we get the insult added to that injury: the threat of a Maine ratepayer-funded program being hijacked by an Austrian wind company.

The Austrian energy company, WEB Windenergie, is buying a locally owned Maine industrial wind company, Pisgah LLC. The company hopes to access a guaranteed 20-year Emera Maine contract for selling energy at 9.3 cents per kilowatt-hour. (Compare that price with wholesale prices in New England that ranged from 2.5 to 3.4 cents per kilowatt-hour in January 2016.) Clifton-based Pisgah LLC wants to sell itself because, while it was able to get a local town permit for the project and have this lucrative contract, it has no money to actually build a wind facility.

However, when it comes to selling, the problem is that the fat contract is only available through a state program open to local Maine companies. In other words, an Austrian company can’t get there from here!

The Legislature created this PUC-administered program in 2010 in order to stimulate local investment in renewable energy production by Maine communities and individuals. The stimulation comes in the form of guaranteed long-term contracts to sell the energy at an above-market rate. The program’s name says it all: The Maine Community Based Renewable Energy Program. The point is to incentivize Maine energy production for Maine communities and Maine profits, to keep it local, as we say in Maine. Mainers pay for the program through rate increases.

What’s a multinational corporation that wants that contract to do? Bring in the lawyers! In an effort to dress up what is obviously neither desired nor allowed, the lawyers have created a charade for the Maine Public Utilities Commission. Their legalizing brings to mind the charming and magical confusion created by the carnival barker’s shell game. “Step right up! And keep your eye on who owns the wind company!”

Simply put, first WEB will have its Canadian subsidiary SWEB do the dirty work, because to Mainers, Canada looks sort of local. SWEB will take 100 percent of the profits, will fund the entire project, and will have majority voting power. The lawyers will keep it quaintly Maine-owned and local by creating a new Pisgah LLC entity called “Pisgah Holdings.” This will be a shell, or shed, in which money for the project can be funneled through as a loan. Pisgah Holdings will leave the back door open for SWEB, who will enter and run the show but will agree for the sake of appearances before the PUC to own, on paper, just 49 percent to Pisgah’s 51 percent.

My conclusion? If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it probably ain’t a live Maine lobster!

However, those lawyers are good. And if the PUC allows WEB/SWEB/Pisgah to masquerade as a local company in the Community Based Renewable Energy Program, Maine’s Emera ratepayers will be receiving higher bills. Ratepayers will need to make up the difference between the drastically lower going rate for energy and the inflated 9.3 cents per kilowatt-hour that the PUC has granted this supposedly local wind company. Our dollars will go to Austria, and maybe Austria will send a big thank you to Augusta.

Peter Beckford is an organic farmer, writer and bagpiper. He lives in Clifton.

 


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