January 19, 2018
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Maine blew it once on offshore wind. It shouldn’t do it again.

Mario Moretto | BDN
Mario Moretto | BDN
In this photo from 2013, Habib Dagher, right, director of UMaine's Advanced Structures and Composites Center, speaks to a crowd of journalists aboard a Maine Maritime Academy research ship. At left is Peter Vigue, CEO of Cianbro Corporation, which partnered with the university to create the one-eighth scale VolturnUS floating wind turbine, in background.

Five years ago, Gov. Paul LePage, an avowed critic of alternative energy, was determined to drive Statoil, a major energy company, out of Maine. He succeeded in quashing the company’s plans for $70 million investment in wind energy development here. In exchange, he threw his support behind a University of Maine offshore wind project.

Now, the Maine Public Utilities Commission, all the members of which were appointed by LePage, has added unneeded uncertainty and delay to the university project, putting at risk $40 million in federal money that is destined for Maine.

In 2014, the Maine Public Utilities Commission approved an agreement between Central Maine Power Co. and the Maine Aqua Ventus project, the name of the University of Maine test project, under which CMP would buy power generated by the project for 20 years, at above market rates. The university plans to install two test turbines in waters off Monhegan Island. It would be the first test of floating turbines in North America. If the Maine test, which will use a university-patented technology, is successful, it could propel the state to a leadership role in offshore wind energy, which could mean more investment and much-needed jobs.

In 2016, the U.S. Department of Energy picked the UMaine project as one of two — out of 70 — slated to receive $40 million in federal funding. The university is continuing to conduct environmental impact studies and is working toward obtaining state and federal permits.

Voters, in 2010, approved a $26.5 million bond that included money for an offshore wind demonstration site and private industry, including Cianbro, has invested millions of dollars in the project, which aims to develop a source of electricity that doesn’t emit greenhouse gases, which contribute to climate change.

Now, this is all in jeopardy, as the PUC considers reopening the 2014 contract. This week, commissioners argued that much has changed in the energy world since 2014, such as lower natural gas prices and declining solar energy costs. These are valid concerns, but, a contract is a business agreement that shouldn’t be changed without urgent reason. We don’t believe re-opening the contract, and the months of delay and uncertainty that would follow, is the best course of action.

The university’s Aqua Ventus project, while controversial in some quarters, has been vetted by state, local and federal officials for years. Reopening the contract not only adds unneeded delay, it also allows opponents of the project to refight battles that have already been resolved.

It would also, again, show that Maine is not an honest broker when it comes to business negotiations, especially if a project is controversial or doesn’t align with the governor’s whims.

The parallels with Statoil are clear. Privately, LePage’s administration contemplated ways to void Statoil’s deal with the PUC. Then, during the spring 2013 legislative session, LePage predicated his support for comprehensive energy legislation on the condition that lawmakers order the PUC to reopen the bidding process to allow a venture led by the University of Maine to submit a competing offshore wind energy pilot project proposal. This was after the PUC had given initial approval to Statoil, the only company to respond to the PUC’s 2010 request for proposals for a deepwater, offshore wind energy demonstration project. Business owners implored the PUC not to renege on the deal, sending the message that Maine was not a reliable business partner.

The PUC should not head down the same path again with Aqua Ventus.

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