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

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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

In reopening the bid proposal, the PUC set out six broad requirements, beyond electric rates. They include that the bidder has the technical and financial capacity to build and operate the project; that it has experience in the deep-water offshore wind industry; that it will invest in manufacturing facilities in Maine; and that it can quantify the economic benefits of the project, such as buying goods from local suppliers.

Documents filed at the PUC typically are put into an online site for public inspection. By law and rule, though, bidders are allowed to designate commercial information as confidential. This is a way to keep business strategies and proposed prices from competitors.

The PUC is authorized to place the information under a protective order and nondisclosure agreements. In this instance, electric utilities and the state's public advocate will be able to see the documents, but on a confidential basis.

This process allows the utilities and public advocate to comment on the proposal as it's reviewed by the PUC staff. The goal in this instance is to develop the terms of a 20-year contract for the wind power project.

It's up to the university to make any of the information public, according to Harry Lanphear, a spokesman for the PUC.

"There may be a public version of the document that is put out to comment from the general public," he said. "It's too early in the process to determine precisely what type of comment process will occur."

Statoil launched the world's first full-scale floating turbine in 2009 in the North Sea. It was looking to Maine to expand and refine the technology.

The UMaine 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.

Both projects also are in competition with offshore wind proposals nationally for $50 million in federal energy funds. That decision is expected this winter.

SURPRISED BY SECRECY

The university's action caught industry representatives off guard. It seems counter to the intent of the governor and the Legislature, according to Jeremy Payne, executive director of the Maine Renewable Energy Association.

"I was surprised that the university's application was confidential, from top to bottom," Payne said. "It doesn't seem to be the most transparent way. How is the general public, the industry and policymakers to know what to support?"

Payne said he also expects UMaine's power contract proposal to be well above market rates, which is to be expected for any small-scale project. Commercial-scale versions of both VolturnUS and Hywind Maine will be designed to compete with market rates after 2020, their developers say.

The lack of information also was troubling to Martin Grimnes, founder of Harbor Technologies in Brunswick. The company makes composite components for port facilities. Grimnes had met in Norway with Statoil about potential future opportunities in Maine and Atlantic Canada.

"Statoil is a commercial giant that already has committed its muscle to wind," Grimnes said. "UMaine has done valuable work, and I'm not belittling that. But it's more research and development."

The potential synergy between UMaine's composites research and Statoil's commercial expertise had been the basis for an earlier partnership between the two parties. That synergy apparently has been lost, at least for now, through the actions of LePage and the Legislature.

But a letter written a year ago this week highlights the level of support that UMaine formerly had for Statoil.

The letter was sent to the PUC while the agency was reviewing Statoil's project bid. It was written by Paul Ferguson, the university's president; Jake Ward, an assistant vice president; and Habib Dagher, director of the Advanced Structures and Composites Center, and a key figure in bringing Statoil to Maine.

"Attracting Statoil is like attracting Apple, GM or Google to Maine," they wrote.

They noted that Maine was at an economic crossroads, and set out a case for how one of the world's leading oil and gas companies could help commercialize offshore wind in Maine.

Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at: tturkel@pressherald.com


Correction: This article was updated at 9:57 a.m., Sept. 4, 2013, to correctly state the first name of Jake Ward, an assistant vice president at the University of Maine.

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