We agree with Patrick Woodcock, director of the Governor’s Energy Office, that it’s time for a comprehensive review and update of Maine’s wind energy policy. Five years have passed since former Gov. John Baldacci’s task force aggressively shepherded the Maine Wind Energy Act into law. The knowledge accumulated during that time should be incorporated into a revised policy to promote wind energy in Maine.
The review should take the form of a fact-based process designed to improve the way Maine advances development of wind energy, not a tool to scuttle the industry. To address valid concerns about a lack of transparency during deliberations that produced the Maine WInd Energy Act, the review must emphasize openness and public input.
Because Gov. Paul LePage has intensified his criticism of wind energy development, his administration should be a participant in but not the organizer of a review process. A bipartisan commission modeled after the panel that traveled the state while scrutinizing Maine’s election system last year would be the best way to buffer what should be impartial information gathering and analysis from the type of political pressure that’s typified discussion of wind power.
The review should begin with a recognition that Maine’s strides in research and development of wind energy technology offer potential long-term economic benefits that can’t simply be measured in terms of cost per kilowatt-hour. Specifically, offshore wind energy development like the prototype floating platform for the VolturnUS wind turbine unveiled last week by the University of Maine’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center represents a real chance for Maine to become a global leader, drawing investment from around the world to the state and creating opportunities to connect other elements of Maine’s economy to foreign markets.
Adapting the Wind Energy Act, and if necessary the Ocean Energy Act, to keep that research and development progress on track must be a priority. While Woodcock’s suggestion that the Ocean Energy Act be reformed “to ensure that we are procuring technologies that will ultimately be constructed in Maine,” any focus on production must not come at the expense of research.
In this stage of development, it’s too early to demand supply-chain guarantees. Assurances like those included in Statoil’s revised term sheet for its Hywind Maine pilot project seem appropriate. Those “good faith diligent efforts” include directing at least 40 percent of capital expenditures for the pilot project to Maine companies, employing at least 150 people during construction, placing the operations center in Maine, and striving to award contracts of 10 percent of capital expenditures, up to $100 million, to Maine contractors for any commercial wind farm the company launches between Maine and Maryland before 2025.
And while Woodcock commendably advocates that reducing the cost to consumers of electricity produced by offshore wind be a goal of the state’s energy policy, any revisions to that policy must acknowledge the reality that pilot projects such as Hywind Maine produce energy at a much higher rate than would be commercially viable because they are, to a large extent, experimental.
Other cost factors to be considered include the benefits of locally produced energy, especially when compared to the volatility in fossil fuel markets; the potential to reduce Maine’s greenhouse gas production; and the positive impact of clean air on the state’s natural resource-based businesses.
Eliminating unrealistic statewide wind energy capacity goals, as Woodcock suggests, would be a start toward revamping Maine’s wind energy policy to reflect the progress that’s been made and the best route to capitalize on it in the future.