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July 4, 2013

Hywind on location
Trude Refsahl/Statoil

Statoil had planned to install floating wind turbines off Boothbay Harbor that would resemble this test turbine, now producing power off Norway. The firm is suspending its work in Maine until it’s sure it has a deal to sell power here.

Our View: Governor is driving away Statoil's investment

We all know what Gov. LePage thinks about wind power. He hates it.

The governor has blamed wind power for Maine's high electricity rates, even though the cost of natural gas is the biggest reason electricity prices go up and down.

He says wind power has cost the state jobs and scared off investment, even though the nascent wind power industry has invested $1 billion in the state since 2004 and created hundreds of high-paying jobs during the depths of the Great Recession.

He's even claimed that wind power is a fraud, saying that the University of Maine at Presque Isle's windmill is turned by "a little electric motor" and not wind, a statement that even he later admitted was laughably false.

But now the governor has done something more than talk. Using his veto power and his control of the Republican caucus in the state Senate, he forced changes to state energy policy that could kill the development of an offshore wind industry in Maine. LePage and his allies have confounded a multinational company that was preparing to make a major investment. This sudden shift may affect more than just this deal -- it could have repercussions any time another company evaluates the risks of doing business in Maine.

Given the governor's distaste for wind energy, some people might have been surprised to see a June 28 news release from his office celebrating L.D. 1472, "An Act to Provide for Economic Development with Offshore Wind." Had the governor changed his position? Hardly.

The bill sounds innocent enough: It gives the University of Maine a chance to compete for a power purchase contract with the Public Utilities Commission. State energy consumers would buy electricity generated at a small, experimental offshore wind farm for a limited time.

This energy would come at a higher price than power from other sources, but the deal would give UMaine the money it needs to develop new technology, and it would spread out the cost among rate payers. It sounds like a great idea, except for one thing.

That contract was awarded months ago to the Norwegian energy company Statoil, which had planned to invest $200 million in creating its own experimental offshore wind farm. The governor got the Legislature to put that deal on hold, while the university gets a second chance to respond to the request for proposals (it did not bid the first time). Rather than creating a level playing field for the university, the governor has Maine going back on its word to a business that was preparing to make a substantial investment here.

The bill claiming to promote offshore wind power is really a bill designed to kill it. The governor who criticizes others for playing "political games" has again shown that when it comes to game playing, he is the master.

The predictable result occurred Wednesday, when Statoil informed the PUC that it would suspend its work in Maine until it is sure that it has a deal to sell power here. Statoil is being courted by other countries for its offshore wind pilot project because if it's successful, the host site will have a head start on the rest of the world in the development of a new industry.

That could happen in Maine if either Statoil or UMaine's projects succeed. The state would be even better off if both of them were able to proceed because of the demand they would create for goods and services along the supply chain. But the governor's strategy may well end up with neither project going forward.

Given the governor's well-known position on wind energy, that might not be a bad outcome for him. But for Mainers who would benefit from the birth of a new industry here, this is very bad news.





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