AUGUSTA, Maine — There’s a new condition Gov. Paul LePage wants met before he supports a far-reaching energy bill that garnered bipartisan support in the Legislature’s Energy Committee last month and is soon headed to the full Legislature.
The governor wants the University of Maine, rather than the Norwegian company Statoil, to have a shot at securing the support of electric ratepayers for its offshore wind energy pilot project. LePage has long opposed supporting Statoil’s pilot wind energy project with funds from electric ratepayers.
LePage is discussing potential changes to the legislation with its key proponents, including House Republican Leader Kenneth Fredette of Newport, that would include allowing the University of Maine to compete for ratepayer support before the Maine Public Utilities Commission. The support from ratepayers would partially pay for the university’s pilot project, which involves placing floating turbines in the Gulf of Maine in an effort to generate 20 gigawatts of offshore wind energy capacity by 2030, nearly 15 years after the Statoil project is slated to be online.
“We are working to ensure that the PUC can consider the University of Maine and that Maine actually gets the best deal for offshore wind development,” said Patrick Woodcock, LePage’s energy director. “We’re trying to bring a little parity to the consideration of the university and Statoil.”
If LePage has his way, the new provision would become part of a comprehensive energy bill that also attempts to expand Maine’s natural gas infrastructure, boost funding for energy efficiency, directly lower businesses’ electricity costs and make it more affordable for residents to abandon oil heat.
LePage has strongly opposed a PUC decision made earlier this year to allow Statoil North America to moor four floating turbines in federal waters off the Maine coast to generate 12 megawatts of energy. Since the electricity generated by the test project is expected to cost significantly more than current market prices, LePage has labeled it too great a risk to be subsidized by Maine utility customers. If Statoil moves ahead with the project, the company’s target date for installing the turbines would be 2016.
The governor singled out the project for criticism during his State of the State address in February.
The University of Maine project, which also involves Pittsfield-based Cianbro, would result in 170, 6-megawatt turbines being placed in the Gulf of Maine by 2030. The University of Maine’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center last week unveiled a scale model of its full-size turbine and placed it in the Penobscot River to be hauled out to Penobscot Bay for mooring near Castine.
LePage has so far withheld his support for the compromise energy deal although the legislation includes some components he supports. LePage had different conditions last month when he pushed Energy Committee members to add a provision to the bill that would raise the 100-megawatt limit energy generation facilities must meet so they can count toward the state’s renewable energy goals, a long-time priority for LePage. He also asked for a provision that would require wind developers prove their projects will lower electricity costs in order to receive state approval.
The Energy Committee has declined to include those provisions in the bill, which continues to take shape as it heads to the full Legislature.
An early draft of bill language that addresses the University of Maine and Statoil offshore wind projects would allow the PUC to consider additional projects for ratepayer support if the Statoil project doesn’t secure necessary federal financing, if the company opts out of its Maine project or if the company doesn’t meet construction deadlines. The bill language specifically allows the University of Maine project to be considered for ratepayer support.
“We want a bill to become law,” Woodcock said. “We are making some changes to improve it so hopefully the bill can become law.”
But any changes made to the bill could endanger the support it has secured so far from lawmakers in both parties. A number of Democrats have signed onto the bill largely because it promises to boost the funding available for energy conservation and efficiency projects administered by the Efficiency Maine Trust.
A measure pending before the Legislature’s budget-writing Appropriations Committee could also fracture support. Sen. Patrick Flood, R-Winthrop, last week introduced an amendment that would use half of the revenues Maine receives from carbon emissions allowance auction s through the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, or RGGI, to help balance the state budget.
The energy bill depends on those revenues to fund energy efficiency programs, provide direct electricity rate reductions to businesses and pay for a home heating rebate program that allows homeowners to abandon oil heat in favor of cheaper, more efficient heating systems.
But Democratic members of the Energy Committee said Tuesday they likely wouldn’t support the bill if it didn’t use the RGGI funds as originally proposed.
“It would effectively undermine the bill,” said Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland.
Rep. Ryan Tipping-Spitz, D-Orono, said committee members should stick with the compromise they’ve crafted.
“I think it’s important we honor the work we did together,” he said. “I think it’s really important to use resources from RGGI to accomplish the goals of RGGI.”
The budget-balancing proposal using RGGI funds originated from the Senate Republican caucus, said Senate Republican Leader Michael Thibodeau of Winterport. Flood originally proposed claiming half of two other energy-related revenue streams for the state’s general fund, but he later withdrew those proposals.
“When we have very limited resources, we have to flip over every rock,” he said. “I don’t think $100 million in subsidies ought to be off the table to protect the energy bill. We’re trying to fund state government, restore revenue sharing to some degree, and you’ve got to ask where our priorities are.”