June 8, 2011

Companies anxious over LePage stand on offshore wind

As a key conference nears, offshore energy backers counter a news story reporting weakness in Maine's commitment.

By Tux Turkel tturkel@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Paul Williamson was in California last month at Windpower 2011, the industry's largest event in the world. Williamson, director of the Maine Wind Industry Initiative, met with global companies that could spend billions of dollars to develop floating wind farms off Maine's coast.

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The windmills of the Thanet Offshore Wind Farm stand off Ramsgate, England. A story headlined “LePage administration questions feasibility of offshore wind power” appeared in the Bangor Daily News last week, two weeks before a major industry conference in Portland.

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COMING TO PORTLAND
For more information on EnergyOcean International’s conference, June 14-16 at Holiday Inn by the Bay, go to energyocean.com

Some of the companies were privately voicing anxiety about Gov. Paul LePage's position on ocean energy, Williamson said, and whether Maine continues to be a good place to invest.

Their concerns were heightened last week by a prominent story in the Bangor Daily News headlined "LePage administration questions feasibility of offshore wind power."

By chance, the article appeared two weeks before a major conference for the offshore renewable energy industry, EnergyOcean International, to be held in Portland from June 14 to 16.

With global energy companies poised to arrive, comments made in the story have Maine's nascent offshore wind industry scrambling to contain the public relations damage. Officials at the University of Maine, where much of the state's offshore wind research is based, are distancing the school from the story.

"It's unfortunate timing," Williamson said. "We'd prefer that before an international audience comes to Maine, we maintain our message about bringing investment here."

Since he took office in January, LePage has made it clear that he's concerned about Maine's higher-than-average electricity rates and opposed to policies that add costs. That view was expressed in the article by two people identified as advisers to LePage with knowledge of the energy industry.

One of them is Ken Fletcher, who heads the governor's energy office. Fletcher estimated that offshore wind power would cost 27 cents per kilowatt-hour, more than a dime above current rates.

The estimate, however, is a projection based on the high cost of developing a small pilot project, not for commercial wind farms. A study released by UMaine earlier this year said it will be possible to generate grid-scale offshore wind power for 8 to 10 cents per kwh in 2020.

The other person identified as a LePage adviser in the story is James LaBrecque, owner of Flexware Control Technology in Bangor. He is quoted as saying that offshore wind power isn't viable because of high costs and "dismal" performance.

LaBrecque is a mechanical engineering adviser at UMaine. He's quoted as saying that offshore wind is "a bit of a sacred cow on campus and throughout the state," and that the school's engineering department is aware of problems with the overall plan but fearful of discussing them.

That prompted Dana Humphrey, UMaine's dean of engineering, and the chairs of four engineering departments at the university to send a letter to the newspaper Friday.

The letter disputes the contention that the faculty uniformly opposes offshore wind power, as the story implied. It says the school's engineers are working to develop a range of alternative energy technologies.

Fletcher is seeking to clarify one facet of the story, which was written primarily by Jamison Cocklin, a UMaine student who has been reporting for the Bangor Daily News.

LaBrecque is not an adviser to the governor, Fletcher said. LaBrecque has spoken to Fletcher and to LePage about energy issues, but he has no official status in the administration.

Fletcher said he wasn't even aware that LaBrecque had been interviewed for the story until he read it.

But the story has made an impression in the wind energy world. One executive said it reinforces a sense that Maine is less receptive to renewable power than it was under Gov. John Baldacci, who made both land and offshore wind power a cornerstone of his energy policy.

"I think it's fair to say that the momentum created by the Baldacci administration seems to be in jeopardy, based on the posture of the new administration," said Ray Dackerman, the U.S. director for London-based Condor Wind Energy.

(Continued on page 2)

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