AUGUSTA –– The Maine Public Utilities Commission agreed Wednesday to extend negotiations for a long-term wind power project in Somerset County.

The commission voted 2-1 to accept new terms for NextEra Energy Resources LLC, the company backing the Highland Wind project, which proposes thirty-three 3.45-megawatt wind turbines in Highland Plantation. If the company accepts the new term sheet then it will continue negotiating with the PUC on final details of a 25-year contract.

The commission’s decision follows its controversial ruling in February to reconsider the terms of the Highland project and a separate proposal by Weaver Wind LLC, a subsidiary of SunEdison, after initially agreeing to the old terms last year. The February decision by the three-member PUC drew the ire of renewable energy advocates who suspected that two of the commissioners, Mark Vannoy and Carlisle McLean, voted to reopen the contracts because they were pressured to do so by Gov. Paul LePage.

Vannoy and McLean, the governor’s former legal counsel, were appointed to the PUC by LePage. David Littell, appointed by former Gov. John Baldacci, voted against reopening the wind contracts.

Wind power advocates argued that the February decision marred the integrity of the regulatory process to satisfy the governor, a vocal critic of wind power. They also claimed that the February decision would discourage investment in wind power, a claim repeated when SunEdison decided May 4 to end talks with the PUC for the Weaver Wind project.

On Wednesday, however, McLean and Littell joined to extend negotiations for Highland Wind. McLean said she didn’t arrive at her decision easily, but that the rates offered in the project were the lowest that Maine has seen in a renewable energy project.

The rates in the deal are confidential. However, the old term sheet negotiated for the project called for NextEra to charge 4.7 cents per kilowatt-hour.

McLean added that she still had concerns about the project, including a provision that would essentially allow NextEra to charge for energy that it may not end up producing. The provision relates to a process known as curtailment. ISO New England, which oversees the power generation in the region, can order power generators to temporarily halt producing electricity under certain circumstances, such as system constraints or during an upgrade to a segment of the power grid. The provision in the NextEra contract would allow the company to charge ratepayers for a portion of the power not generated, although the exact amount is unclear because of the confidentiality of the contract.

McLean said that the PUC was hopeful that a deal with NextEra would limit the risk to ratepayers.

“Entrance into a long-term contract of this nature has an unknown amount of risk that is placed on the ratepayers,” she said. “We have the authority to do it, we do it carefully, we do it cautiously. … We’re (she and Littell) both saying we’re willing to do this, we think this price is good, we think there’s benefit to reducing price volatility by entering this contract. But we also want to make sure we’re getting the best deal we can. These are massive companies with information that we don’t have. I don’t want to be taken advantage of.”

Commission Chairman Mark Vannoy voted against continuing the contract talks. He argued that a 25-year term deal was too risky for ratepayers, particularly with the brightening prospects that Maine will upgrade natural gas pipeline capacity that will allow it to access cheap and abundant gas from the Marcellus Shale region of West Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York.

Steve Mistler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at:

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