SCARBOROUGH – The University of Maine’s decision to keep secret their proposal for a pilot offshore wind turbine (the Aqua Ventus proposal) is disturbing for a number of reasons outlined in a recent story in the Portland Press Herald (“UMaine keeps wind project details secret,” Sept. 4) and a Maine Sunday Telegram editorial (“Our View: UMaine wind proposal should get full airing,” Sept. 8).

The Norwegian company Statoil’s bid to develop a floating wind platform off the Maine coast (the Hywind Maine proposal) had been given a green light by the Maine Public Utilities Commission and would build on successful experience in Norway with a prototype offshore turbine operating since 2009.

The Norwegian proposal met criteria established in a competitive bidding process, which included demonstration of commercial and technical resources relevant to the deep-water offshore wind industry and a willingness to partner with Maine industries (e.g., production here of composite turbine blades).

Statoil has a proven record in a closely related industry — building and operating floating platforms to extract oil from the often-treacherous North Sea. Some of this success has been facilitated by partnerships with American companies sharing innovative technologies in undersea oil storage and oil transfer to ships.

And Norwegian firms have experience working collaboratively with other countries as well.

For example, the Knudsen fleet of supertankers, with an enviable safety record, includes many new liquefied natural gas transport vessels built in close cooperation with a large Korean shipyard.

Not surprising, then, the Norwegian proposal to build a prototype floating wind turbine off the Maine coast near Boothbay was the first choice of the Maine PUC and seemed set to move forward.

But when a decision by the Legislature prompted by Gov. LePage caused the bidding process to be reopened (presumably to offer the UMaine partners’ Ventus project a second chance to rejoin a competition already won by the Norwegians), it was followed by Statoil’s announcement in July that its Hywind proposal is now on hold.

There may be good reasons why the UMaine proposal remains cloaked in secrecy. If newer, innovative technology to harness offshore wind energy requires protection for proprietary reasons and could accelerate the effort to attain competitive energy pricing while bringing wealth and jobs to our state, it may justify the current lack of transparency.

But the embargo limiting full access to the details and cost estimates of the UMaine project leaves the private investors who have signed on — and, ultimately, ratepayers in the state — no way to fairly compare proposals.

If the UMaine project were to be selected, there could be added risk that less-proven new technology (involving concrete platforms instead of the floating steel turbine platforms described in the Norwegian proposal) won’t succeed.

If the enormous resources and proven experience of Statoil are ultimately withdrawn when their executives re-evaluate their Hywind proposal this fall, it may prove to be a highly regrettable lost economic opportunity.  

Statoil’s decision-makers may have recognized the irony that Maine’s supposedly “business-friendly” governor is an untrustworthy potential business partner who has unfairly arranged to “move the goalposts during the game” by a back-door political move to reopen an already concluded bidding process. 

A further irony lies in the fact that UMaine had formerly looked forward to a partnership rather than a competition with Statoil. University President Paul Ferguson and others working to bring Statoil to Maine wrote a letter a year ago stating that “attracting Statoil to Maine is like attracting Apple, GM or Google” in the scale of benefit such a partnership could bring.

There’s plenty of wind and offshore real estate available. If the current atmosphere of what appears to be an unfairly manipulated competition could be replaced by fruitful trans-Atlantic cooperation, all concerned would benefit. 

Gov. LePage would do well to stop by the Portland waterfront to see at first hand the evidence of a successful trans-Atlantic partnership with a Scandinavian company that could be a model for a future partnership with Statoil.

Freighters from the Icelandic shipping company Eimskip are often tied up at the former ferry terminal, and Eimskip cargo containers are piled on the docks waiting to be forwarded to other destinations well beyond Maine.

Tapping into Norwegian expertise to advance the offshore wind industry could be a similar win-win proposition. Don’t blow this one, Governor!

James H. Maier is a resident of Scarborough.


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