Two environmental groups are pressing state utility regulators and the University of Maine to release a controversial proposal for a demonstration offshore wind power project – a document the university has declined to make public.

In a letter sent Monday to the Public Utilities Commission, Environment Northeast and the Conservation Law Foundation said the public has a right to know if the project could cost less and have greater economic benefits than a previously-approved offshore wind proposal from the Norwegian energy company Statoil. The groups urged the PUC to make the UMaine plan public now and to decide its merits by Dec. 31.

The project is being developed through a partnership between the university and several businesses, under the name Maine Aqua Ventus I, GP, LLC.

“The longer it takes the commission to reach its decision, the greater the risk of disrupting an important economic opportunity for Maine’s clean energy future and risking its business reputation,” wrote Beth Nagusky, Environment Northeast’s Maine director, and Sean Mahoney, vice president for the Conservation Law Foundation.

In a related action, Mahoney’s group filed a Freedom of Access Act request with UMaine and the PUC, in an effort to see the documents and gain a fuller understanding of how the proposal evolved.

The Portland Press Herald has also filed Freedom of Access Act requests for the documents.

The Maine attorney for Statoil, Patrick Scully, has also written a letter to the agency asking it to provide access to the Maine Aqua Ventus proposal. Scully did not submit his request under the Freedom of Access Act. However, he argued that, as the only developer with an approved contract for offshore wind with the PUC, Statoil should be able to see the proposal, subject to appropriate confidentiality rules.

Taken together, the steps seem designed to put pressure on the PUC and university partnership to quickly release at least some of the information on its offshore wind proposal.

Harry Lanphear, a spokesman for the PUC, said the agency had put the letters on its website and would seek comments from formal parties to the case before deciding how to respond.

COMPETITION OR CONFIDENTIAL?

The UMaine partnership’s lawyer, Tony Buxton, said the proposal was filed as a confidential document in keeping with the practices of all other PUC bidders, including Statoil, and would be made public if and when a power contract is awarded by the PUC.

Buxton pointed out that the university project is in competition for federal energy funds with six national deep water wind proposals, including Statoil’s project, and releasing data now would give the others an unfair advantage.

“That is not in the interest of (Maine Aqua Ventus), the state of Maine or the state and federal effort to successfully develop offshore wind in the Gulf of Maine,” Buxton said.

On Sept. 1, the Maine Aqua Ventus business partnership submitted a highly anticipated proposal for a demonstration offshore wind power project to the PUC. Among other things, the proposal estimates what consumers can expect to pay for wind energy generated off the Maine coast — at least in its developmental stages.

But UMaine made the unusual move of keeping the entire 100-page document from public view. That makes it impossible to get a sense of the overall economic potential of a venture meant to advance Maine’s standing as a center of research and construction in deep water ocean energy.

The lack of transparency was immediately criticized by the Maine Renewable Energy Association and business interests that had been supporting the Statoil project, known as Hywind Maine.

UMaine’s proposal, like the previous bid from Statoil, will likely offer power at costs considerably above what consumers are now paying for electricity generated from burning natural gas.

But the lack of information means there is no way to compare UMaine’s plan with Statoil’s, which involves a $120 million floating wind turbine project off Boothbay Harbor.

The 12-megawatt Hywind Maine wind park would generate enough energy annually to power roughly 8,000 homes, through a power purchase agreement for 27 cents per kilowatt-hour. That’s well above market rates, but the terms also called for Statoil to provide certain economic benefits tied to job creation and in-state investment.

Those terms didn’t satisfy Gov. Paul LePage, a vocal opponent of wind power. He argued that the rate was too high and the economic benefits too low. In exchange for allowing a sweeping energy bill to become law this summer, LePage engineered a political maneuver in the waning days of the legislative session. The end result was that lawmakers voted to order the PUC to reopen the bid process for offshore wind proposals.

The legislative action also prompted Statoil to announce in early July that it was putting Hywind Maine on hold, citing the uncertainty created by the new bidding process. The company said it would re-evaluate the project this fall.

Statoil launched the world’s first full-scale floating turbine in 2009 in the North Sea. It was looking to Maine to expand and refine the technology.

A DECISION BY 2014

Reopening the bid process created a two-month window for UMaine to submit a bid for a project it’s developing, called VolturnUS.

The university said earlier this month that its proposal is based on a full-scale pilot farm that meets the requirements of the PUC request and on a smaller prototype it is now testing off Castine.

The UMaine partners, which include Maine-based Cianbro Corp. and the parent company of Bangor Hydro-Electric Co., Emera Inc. of Halifax, Nova Scotia, launched a one-eighth-scale prototype of their project in May off Castine. At full scale, a $96 million project located off Monhegan Island would generate 12 megawatts.

The PUC said the three-member commission will deliberate on the case and make a decision by Dec. 31. No specific date has been set for deliberations.

In their letter to the PUC, Nagusky and Mahoney urged the commission to set a deadline for receiving comments on the proposal and a schedule for the case that will lead to a decision as soon as possible, but no later than Dec. 31.

First, they said, it was the result of a divisive public debate in the Legislature. Second, it endangered a significant investment by a global energy company and sent a bad message to businesses interested in similar investments. Third, UMaine is a public institution supported by taxpayers, and its work should be open to the public.

Documents filed at the PUC typically are put into an online site for public inspection. By law and rule, though, bidders are allowed to designate commercial information as confidential, as a way to keep business strategies and proposed prices from competitors.

Mahoney said he also wanted to explore any influences, beyond LePage and the Legislature, that may have led the university to submit its proposal, at the expense of Statoil. Until last summer, the two parties had been working together on elements of Statoil’s project.

One year ago, when the PUC was reviewing Statoil’s bid, the university sent a letter of support to the PUC. It read, in part: “Attracting Statoil is like attracting Apple, GM or Google to Maine.”

The letter noted that Maine was at an economic crossroads, and set out a case for how one of the world’s leading oil and gas companies could help commercialize offshore wind in Maine.

“I want to see why they did a 180 on their position, and who was making that case,” Mahoney said.

Both projects also are in competition with offshore wind proposals nationally for $50 million in federal energy funds. That decision is expected this winter.

Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at:

tturkel@pressherald.com