October 9, 2013

PUC orders disclosure of UMaine wind proposal details

The commission says it will work to release information that’s not deemed confidential by the end of the month.

By Tux Turkel tturkel@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 1)

Today's poll: Wind farm plan

Do you agree with the Public Utilities Commission's decision to order a University of Maine-led partnership to release an edited version of its wind farm plan?

Yes

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A lobster boat passes a floating wind turbine off the coast of Castine in September. The University of Maine’s 9,000-pound prototype has been generating power since the summer.

The Associated Press/ Robert F. Bukaty

Vannoy disagreed with his colleagues. He noted that the request-for-proposal language allows applicants to designate what’s confidential, and said that changing the rules now tells future applicants that the PUC will bend to political pressure.

“This is a real test of whether we can maintain confidentiality,” he said.

NON-CONFIDENTIAL INFORMATION

After the commission’s deliberation, the university’s assistant counsel, Jeffrey Thaler, said he disagreed with the decision to require an edited version for public review. But Thaler said he expects that Maine Aqua Ventus will comply and work with the PUC staff.

On Monday, Thaler informed the PUC by letter that Maine Aqua Ventus had decided to launch a website containing non-confidential information about the project, partners and process.

Welch and Littell said the website idea doesn’t go far enough. Littell said it gives Maine Aqua Ventus a way to selectively release what it wants to public to see, not necessarily what the public or media is requesting.

Tuesday’s decision followed requests by environmental activists, influential Democrat legislators and the project’s Norwegian competitor, Statoil North America. For several weeks, they had been trying to pressure the university and its business partners to publicly disclose some details of its efforts to win a power contract for the demonstration project.

Beth Nagusky, Maine director for Environment Northeast, said the information should allow interested parties to evaluate the bid and compare the benefits it offers with Statoil’s proposal.

“We’re pleased with the PUC’s decision,” she said. “We feel Maine always makes better decisions when more information is available.”

Nagusky also recognized the balance between providing information and revealing business details to competitors.

“We hope they will release all the information that is not a legitimate trade secret,” she said. “We don’t want to do harm to the university’s proposal, but we do think the public has a legitimate interest in reviewing the contents.”

INITIAL PRICES ABOVE AVERAGE

Initial power prices from pilot wind energy projects will be well above average, but if the small-scale projects work out, developers hope to bring down the cost of electricity with large, floating wind farms connected to the regional grid. The goal is to achieve rates on par with conventional power plants after 2020.

But nothing will go forward in Maine without $46 million in federal energy grants that are set to be awarded in the spring. Maine Aqua Ventus is competing nationally with seven companies, including Statoil, for three awards from the Department of Energy for offshore wind projects.

Each developer needs a state-approved power purchase agreement to be in the running for the money. Statoil has one, for its 12-megawatt Hywind Maine wind park off Boothbay Harbor. The contract is for power well above market rates, but the PUC decided that impact would be mitigated by the economic benefits and long-term potential.

The PUC must decide before year’s end whether to grant a similar contract to Maine Aqua Ventus.

The decision hinges on the commission’s assessment of whether Maine Aqua Ventus has the technical and financial ability to carry out its proposal, among other things. That’s why interested parties are eager to learn more about the plan.

Also Tuesday, the commission sided with Statoil’s request to let its attorneys see the Maine Aqua Ventus proposal, under an agreement that the information wouldn’t be shared with anyone else. The vote was 2-1, with Vannoy opposing the release.

Officials at Statoil couldn’t be reached for comment late Tuesday.

Thaler said he also would discuss that ruling with the partnership, but said he might oppose it and file a motion with the commission for reconsideration.

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

tturkel@pressherald.com

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Today's poll: Wind farm plan

Do you agree with the Public Utilities Commission's decision to order a University of Maine-led partnership to release an edited version of its wind farm plan?

Yes

No

View Results