September 24, 2013

Legislators want veil lifted on UMaine wind plan

They and others say a lack of information makes it impossible to compare the project to Statoil's proposal.

By Tux Turkel tturkel@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

The two chairmen of the committee that oversees energy issues in the Maine Legislature are asking the head of the Public Utilities Commission to release at least some of the University of Maine’s deep-water offshore wind project application.

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A team from the University of Maine at Orono tests a turbine outside their laboratory as they prepare to place the floating turbine in the ocean off the coast of Castine in May.

Photo courtesy of Habib Dagher / University of Maine

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Sen. John Cleveland, D-Auburn, and Rep. Barry Hobbins, D-Saco, sent the letter on Friday to the PUC’s chair, Tom Welch.

“We understand that portions of the application may justify confidentiality, such as commercial proprietary information,” they wrote. “However, in light of the unique circumstances … we do not support the decision to allow the entire proposal to remain confidential.”

The Press Herald obtained a copy of the letter after requesting it from Cleveland.

Responding to the newspaper’s questions about how the PUC would handle the letter, Welch said the content reflected the same concerns raised by two other interested parties that had filed formal comments earlier this month, as part of the commission’s review of the UMaine application. The three-member commission will decide how much information, if any, can be released when it meets for an upcoming deliberation session in mid-October, he said.

The request from the two leaders of the Energy, Utilities and Technology committee represents the latest attempt to pressure the university and its business partners to publicly disclose some details of its efforts to win a power contract for a demonstration wind project off the Maine coast, a venture that could have a broad impact on the state’s economy and energy future.

The project is being developed under the name Maine Aqua Ventus I, GP, LLC. It is composed of a partnership between the university, Maine-based Cianbro Corp. and the parent company of Bangor Hydro Electric Co., Emera, Inc. of Halifax, Nova Scotia.

The partners 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.

On September 1, Maine Aqua Ventus submitted a highly anticipated proposal for its full-scale 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 the partnership chose to keep the entire 100-page document from public view. A lawyer who represents Maine Aqua Ventus, Tony Buxton, said it’s  common practice to keep request for project proposals confidential. Making any information public now would provide an unfair competitive advantage to competitors, he said, including Norway-based Statoil.

On Monday, Buxton said the partnership would review the letter from Cleveland and Hobbins when it becomes available from the commission.

“We will take a look at the letter and respond accordingly,” he said.

Statoil already has PUC approval for its 12-megawatt Hywind Maine wind park off Boothbay Harbor.

The contract is for power 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, and accommodate UMaine.

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 in the fall.

(Continued on page 2)

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Today's poll: UMaine wind proposal

Should the PUC make public the wind proposal from the University of Maine and a team of investors?

Yes

No

View Results