In Maine, LePage’s exit could open doors

Source: Saqib Rahim, E&E News reporter • Posted: Monday, June 11, 2018

When Gov. Paul LePage (R) leaves office next year, he can take comfort in knowing that he helped keep expensive wind farms from going up off the Maine coast.

When the next governor assumes power, he or she can expect a long line of offshore wind advocates at the door with this message: It’s pricey, but it’s worth it.

“There are quite a few doors we’re hoping to open again with a new administration!” Kathleen Meil, a policy advocate for the nonprofit Acadia Center, said in an email.

With Maine’s primaries coming up next week and the gubernatorial election coming in November, offshore wind advocates are girding for the best opportunity they’ve seen since LePage took office in 2011. They are hoping LePage’s successor, Republican or Democrat, will be more open to offshore wind as a job creator and energy asset, not just a burdensome cost for everyday Mainers.

A report issued yesterday offers one version of how they’ll make their case. The paper, by a nonprofit called the American Jobs Project, said the state could generate more than 2,000 jobs a year and become a technological leader, if policymakers want it. AJP’s board is chaired by former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D).

“There have been consistent signals from policymakers there that really show that the state is closed for business,” said Mary Collins, a director at AJP and an author of the report. “And I hope that future policymakers are able to have some steady-handed, consistent leadership.”

LePage, meanwhile, has said all his energy policies are geared to one thing: lowering costs for Mainers. In a statement, the governor’s office said he’s not ideologically opposed to offshore wind — it just didn’t pass the cost test.

“Taxpayers should not be expected to bear the burden of experimental technologies through subsidies while those technologies also increase the cost of energy for Mainers, which is among the highest in the nation,” Julie Rabinowitz, a spokeswoman, said by email. “The Governor believes that all energy options regardless of generation type should be on the table so long as they lower the cost of energy for Maine’s citizens and businesses.”

According to University of Maine researchers, the state has some 150 gigawatts of wind potential at sea. (For reference, New York state’s summer generation capacity is about 42 GW.) Yet under LePage, Maine has opted out of the offshore wind rush currently taking place in most of the Northeast.

Over the last two years, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey have been trying to outdo one another on policies and investments, seeing offshore wind as a play for manufacturing jobs as much as a clean energy source.

But it’s no secret that offshore wind electrons are some of the priciest around, at least in the U.S., so each of these states has had to devise a policy mechanism to get the public to pay a premium. Developers say that once the costs come down, the jobs and new factories will be worth it.

Not LePage, whom one observer described as having an “open antipathy to renewable energy.”

Glancing at Maine’s power portfolio, that might not seem to be the case. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Maine gets about two-thirds of its power from renewable energy, far above any other Northeastern state.

Most of that power is from hydropower and biomass, but Maine is also a major onshore wind producer; its turbines delivered three-fifths of New England’s wind generation in 2016.

‘The talent is here’

The governor is an open supporter of a major power line project that would connect hydropower in Quebec to Massachusetts, traversing Maine.

But LePage, who famously called himself “Donald Trump before Donald Trump,” has also seized on renewable energy’s potency as a political weapon.

“Liberals look to Boston, Hartford [Conn.] and Montpelier [Vt.] for magical energy schemes that add an electric fee to your bill, and then hand the money to wealthy energy companies,” he said in a 2016 radio address.

Renewable energy advocates said LePage’s actions, ideologically motivated or not, have crushed the advanced-energy industry there, including offshore wind.

State regulators are currently scrutinizing a demonstration project that could show the viability of floating offshore wind, they said.

The project, Aqua Ventus, would include two 6-megawatt turbines; the units would bob on the ocean surface, connecting to the ocean floor with cables. The technology isn’t commercial yet, but some experts believe it could be a long-term solution to harnessing strong deep-sea winds.

To get built, though, the project needs its power contract approved by the state Public Utilities Commission, which answers to LePage. If it’s not approved, the project could lose $87 million in federal funding.

Offshore wind advocates also lament another action in 2011. That year, LePage proposed to dissolve the State Planning Office for budget reasons, devolving its functions to other agencies.

Why does that matter? States such as Massachusetts and New York have offices that are taking point on offshore wind, coordinating the state and federal permits as well as working with the private sector.

One of the American Jobs Project’s recommendations is to restore this office. “Without an independent entity like the SPO to do independent nonpartisan analysis, state policymakers are going to have a really hard time growing the offshore wind industry, or any industry for that matter,” Collins said.

“The assertion appears to be that this work is no longer being done because the state no longer has this bureaucratic distinction of ‘the State Planning Office,'” Rabinowitz, LePage’s spokeswoman, replied. “The Governor believes in streamlining government and elimination of duplicative services.”

So far, renewable energy hasn’t been a major focus in the Maine gubernatorial race. The field remains undecided going into the primary, with neither Republicans nor Democrats gathering around a favorite.

On the Democratic side, at least, there are two strong proponents of offshore wind.

Adam Cote, a lawyer and former energy executive, said Maine should try to develop at least 5 GW of floating offshore wind farms by 2030. He’s promised a 10-year plan to make the state’s power portfolio 100 percent renewable.

Former Attorney General Janet Mills would reform policies in its favor and put money into research and development on floating-offshore technology, campaign manager Michael Ambler said.

“It’s an opportunity for the next governor to make a lot of progress quickly,” Ambler said. “The talent is here, the engineering is here. We kind of have all the pieces lined up, we’ve just been in stasis for seven years.”

Mary Mayhew, a Republican and former member of the LePage administration, appears to be more in the current governor’s image.

“I do not support state policy that leaves Maine rate payers and businesses footing the bill for money-losing energy options,” she said in a questionnaire given by Seacoast Media Group.

“I will support everything and anything that provides the lowest cost energy options for hardworking Mainers,” she said.