Friday, March 7, 2014
Maine’s wind power industry is poised to see its biggest period of growth since the state’s first major project was built six years ago, a surge brought on by unprecedented demand for renewable energy in southern New England and by evolving technology that has lowered the cost of producing electricity.
Recent laws in Massachusetts and Connecticut have compelled utilities to seek proposals from developers of renewable energy projects. Dozens of potential ventures competed, including solar and tidal energy. In the end, utilities chose mostly wind projects, mostly in Maine.
Massachusetts companies signed power-purchase agreements for a total of 565 megawatts, enough energy to power 170,000 homes. Roughly 488 megawatts of that would come from five wind farms in Maine. They are in Oakfield, Lexington Township and Bingham, along with two near Columbia Falls.
Connecticut, which set a goal of getting 20 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020, signed a long-term contract with a proposed wind farm west of Bridgewater in Aroostook County that will have a capacity of 250 megawatts. With an investment estimated at up to $500 million, it would be the largest project ever built in New England.
These projects are expected to come online within three years. The deals still need approvals from state regulators, and some still lack all of their needed permits in Maine. But they were announced quickly late last month, because developers are under time pressure to start some work before the end of the year, when a critical federal tax credit expires.
Utilities and energy officials say they selected the projects because wind now can produce power near the cost of electricity from natural gas, the dominant generation source in the region. Until recently, wind hasn’t been able to compete on price with gas-powered electricity in New England. To the extent that the equation has changed, it means the industry in Maine may be poised to see continued growth, and the construction jobs and investment that come with it.
“We’re very focused on price,” said Dennis Schain, a spokesman for the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. “We want cleaner power, but we want it cheaper.”
In Massachusetts, utilities estimated that customers would save between 75 cents and $1 a month if the contracts were approved. The Associated Industries of Massachusetts told The Boston Globe that the state can benefit from this competitively priced renewable power.
Wind energy in Maine has attracted roughly $1 billion in investment, according to industry calculations. But the prospect of a new construction boom isn’t being welcomed by Gov. Paul LePage, who has been a vocal critic of the cost of wind energy.
For one thing, the negotiated rates aren’t as low as they seem, according to Patrick Woodcock, the governor’s energy director, because of the added cost of upgrading transmission lines. Beyond that, he said, out-of-state power agreements don’t help Mainers with their high energy bills, which could be lower if wind had more competition from Canadian hydro and new biomass plants.
“Wind is not the only option for renewable energy generation in New England,” he said.
The goals in Connecticut and Massachusetts are a new nightmare for wind-power opponents in Maine, who have been protesting since the Boston company now as known as First Wind built a 42-megawatt project at Mars Hill in 2007. They complain that Maine sees few benefits for having giant towers and turbines sprouting from ridgelines across the state. Now they expect to see hundreds more, and say they will fight any permit approvals.
“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Steve Thurston, a spokesman for the Citizens’ Task Force on Wind Power. “Maine is going to be a plantation of wind turbines to serve the needs of residents in other states.”
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