January 23, 2013

$120 million Maine wind project faces key vote Thursday

Statoil's $120 million test of floating turbines could jump-start a Maine industry, but the power's cost and economic benefits have to satisfy regulators.

By Tux Turkel tturkel@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Plans by the Norwegian energy giant Statoil to develop a $120 million wind turbine demonstration project off Maine's coast depend on whether state regulators approve the company's proposed electricity rate and contract terms at a meeting Thursday, says the project's manager.

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Hywind on location
click image to enlarge

Plans by the Norwegian energy giant Statoil to develop a $120 million wind turbine demonstration project off Maine's coast depend on whether state regulators approve the company's proposed electricity rate and contract terms at a meeting Thursday. The Maine turbines would look similar to the Hywind test turbine (seen here), now producing power off the coast of Norway.

Photo from Trude Refsahl / Statoil

click image to enlarge

"It's critical for us to have both federal and state support to build the project," Kristin Aamodt told the Portland Press Herald. "This decision Thursday is very important to be able to develop the project further."

Statoil is a large oil and gas producer that's using its experience in the North Sea to develop renewable-energy projects around the world. It launched the world's first floating turbine three years ago, off Norway.

If Statoil cannot refine its offshore floating wind turbine design in the Gulf of Maine, Aamodt indicated, the company may shift its efforts to Japan or Europe.

The Maine Public Utilities Commission is set to deliberate on Statoil's plan for Hywind Maine. The project would put four, three-megawatt wind turbines on floating spar-buoy structures tethered to the seabed in 460 feet of water off Boothbay Harbor.

They would be assembled onshore and towed to the site. Power could be flowing into the grid, via undersea cable, by 2016.

But the cost of that power, and the extent of the project's economic benefits for Maine, are at issue before the PUC. In October, when state regulators initially reviewed the plan, two of the three commissioners indicated they couldn't support it without lower power rates and clear enhanced benefits.

This month, Statoil came back with changes meant to address those concerns. The company says it cannot make further concessions. On Thursday, the PUC will consider whether Statoil has sweetened the deal enough for Maine to accept it.

Wind turbines are common in shallow water off Europe. Now, developers are testing technologies to locate them miles offshore, where the winds are better and coastal residents can't see them.

Supporters see Statoil's plan as Maine's best chance to help attract a deep-water wind-power industry that someday could create thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in investment.

"There are not a lot of billion-dollar industries knocking on the state's door," said Jeremy Payne, executive director of the Maine Renewable Energy Association. "This could decide whether Maine is going to be playing a role in the offshore wind industry, not only in the United States but across the globe."

Other countries want to develop deep-water wind parks, Payne said.

"We're in a race with Scotland," he said. "Maine's 2010 Ocean Energy Act said we want to an incubator. If we say no and Scotland says yes, that's going to be the end of the offshore wind industry in Maine for the foreseeable future."

But opponents, including paper companies and large power users represented by the Industrial Energy Consumer Group, say Statoil's proposal is too expensive and lacks sufficient assurances of benefits for Maine.

"Simply put," the group wrote in comments filed with the PUC on Tuesday, "if we as a state have $100 million or more to spend to address the critical issues of climate change and economic development, is this the best investment we can make, or would we be wiser to consider alternatives, including other renewable technologies, energy efficiency or facilitating greater use of low-carbon fuels?"

Statoil's latest proposal also falls short in the view of Gov. Paul LePage's administration.

In comments filed Wednesday, LePage's new energy director, Patrick Woodcock, said Statoil is signaling a "good faith" commitment to Maine manufacturing, but the proposal's wording fails to clearly demonstrate that Statoil would follow through on the investment, as required under the Ocean Energy Act.

(Continued on page 2)

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Today's poll: Wind project

Do you support a proposed wind turbine dem­onstration project off the Maine coast?

Yes

No

View Results