September 4, 2013

UMaine keeps wind project details secret

The university's proposal for an offshore installation is not available to the public, which surprises critics.

By Tux Turkel tturkel@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA — A business partnership led by the University of Maine has submitted a highly anticipated proposal for a demonstration offshore wind power project to state utility regulators.

click image to enlarge

A scale model of the University of Maine's "VolturnUS" turbine was christened in May. Initial assessments of UMaine's offshore wind proposal will be difficult because UMaine has chosen to keep the entire 100-page document from public view.

Gordon Chibroski / Staff Photographer

The proposal will shed light on what consumers can expect to pay for renewable wind energy generated off the coast of Maine – at least in its developmental stages.

But initial assessments will be difficult because UMaine has chosen to keep the entire 100-page document from public view.

So at least for the time being, the public is unable to learn what customers would pay for the electricity or 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.

UMaine's proposal, like a competing bid submitted last winter by Statoil, a Norwegian energy company that also wants to build an offshore wind project, will likely offer power at costs considerably above what consumers are now paying for electricity generated from burning fossil fuels or hydroelectric dams.

But the lack of information makes it impossible for now to compare UMaine's plan with the Hywind Maine project approved last winter by the Maine Public Utilities Commission. Hywind Maine, Statoil's project, 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.

That 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.

That created a two-month window for UMaine to submit a bid for a project it's developing, called VolturnUS. The university and its partners submitted the bid last Friday, the deadline for the application.

COMPARING TWO PROJECTS

In a statement released Tuesday, the university said 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 is testing off Castine.

"UMaine believes this is a strong proposal from the newly formed Maine-based company Aqua Ventus I, GP LLC – a company formed by Cianbro, Emera and Maine Prime Technologies LLC – to commercialize UMaine's floating wind turbine technology," the university said.

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

LePage's maneuver 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.

But it's unclear when Statoil, or the public, will have more details about what UMaine is proposing. Elizabeth Swain, a consultant in Maine for Statoil, said Tuesday she could not immediately reach company officials in Norway for comment on UMaine's filing.

(Continued on page 2)

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