June 18, 2019
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Legislature, PUC should fix offshore wind mistake

Mario Moretto | BDN
Mario Moretto | BDN
VolturnUS, the first-of-its-kind wind turbine, designed and built at the University of Maine, became the first grid-connected offshore wind turbine in the Americas to provide electricity to the power grid in June 2013.

Citing the need for cleaner, homegrown energy, the Legislature in 2010 directed the Maine Public Utilities Commission to facilitate the development of renewable energy sources, including wind power off the state’s coast.

In the nearly decade since then, the state and PUC have made a series of missteps that are close to leaving Maine behind as other states and countries develop offshore wind capacity.

Maine has one more chance to get this right. In this convoluted case, another directive from the Legislature is necessary to help unwind all the bad decisions that have been made over the past nine years.

LD 994, sponsored by Republican Sen. David Woodsome of North Waterboro, directs the PUC to approve a long-term power contract between a University of Maine offshore wind demonstration project and Central Maine Power Co. The terms of the contract were approved by the PUC in 2014, but no contract has been signed. That’s because former Gov. Paul LePage used his veto power to interfere with the offshore wind power contract process, driving away one offshore wind power company — and its potential $120 million investment — and delaying the university’s demonstration project near Monhegan Island.

In January 2013, the PUC granted Norwegian energy company Statoil initial approval to moor four floating turbines off the coast near Boothbay Harbor to generate 12 megawatts of energy. Later that year, 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. Statoil pulled the plug on its Maine project in October 2013, citing regulatory uncertainty.

In 2014, the commission approved an agreement between Central Maine Power Co. and the Maine Aqua Ventus project, the name of UMaine’s test project, under which CMP would buy power generated by the project for 20 years.

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 test of a UMaine-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 for the project.

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 climate change-contributing greenhouse gases.

But, last year, the PUC stalled the UMaine project by reopening its bid, arguing that much had changed since 2014. Business leaders warned the commission not to reopen the contract, as it would again show that Maine doesn’t keep its word.

One big change from 2014 is that offshore wind development is no longer speculative. Last month, Massachusetts regulators approved a 20-year contract for the Vineyard Wind project. New Jersey has a goal of 3,500 megawatts of offshore wind generation by 2030.

LD 994, which the Legislature’s Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee strongly supported on Wednesday, is Maine’s chance to rejoin the leaders in offshore wind development. Passing this bill will right two wrongs and allow a promising wind power project to finally proceed. It will also begin to restore Maine’s reputation as a trusted business partner.

 



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