Op-Ed: An ill wind blows in Augusta

Source: By Philip Conkling, Bangor daily News • Posted: Thursday, May 11, 2017

Long ago and in a different reality, the Maine Legislature approved a set of ambitious goals for developing Maine’s offshore wind resources, which are the largest off the country’s Atlantic coastline. Now, the Legislature may completely abandon these ambitions.

In 2009, the Renewable Ocean Energy law directed Maine’s Department of Conservation to establish offshore sites where the technology for floating wind turbines could be demonstrated and tested. Two groups immediately went to work on developing the technology in an attempt to open up this potentially vast renewable energy resource.

One group was a consortium led by the University of Maine, called Maine Aqua Ventus, which also includes Cianbro, the Pittsfield-based construction company, and Emera, the company that purchased Bangor Hydro. Statoil, the giant Norwegian energy company, led the competing group.

Five years later, the governor and Legislature chased Statoil out of the state after the Public Utilities Commission had approved its project. They did to give the Aqua Ventus a chance to finalize its proposal.

Now the Legislature is considering pulling the plug on this second proposal at the behest of a small group of Monhegan Island residents who have raised $50,000 to object to the size and location of the proposed demonstration structures.

At the public hearing for LD 1262, “An Act To Protect Monhegan From Wind Turbines,” an overflow crowd of proponents and opponents offered testimony on the effect of moving the UMaine-led project off the state-sanctioned Monhegan Island demonstration site to some other location further away from the island. UMaine says they have spent $10.7 million of federal research and development funds to date, and if the Legislature passes the bill, they say their project is “dead in the water.” Literally.

The public hearing provided a fascinating picture of how energy policy is currently unfolding in Augusta. Sen. Dana Dow of Waldoboro, sponsor of this legislation, said that he believes “the final decision (should) rest with the permanent residents of the island,” who he also suggested, “are split down the middle,” which is not the case as most residents testified against Dow’s bill.

Although opponents of the legislation, including a significant number of year-round island residents, outnumbered proponents by a two-to-one margin at the hearing, it is not clear that the senator’s bill would enhance local control, since almost everyone agrees starting the planning for a new demonstration site would end offshore wind development in Maine for years to come.

Hanging in the air in the run up to the public hearing is whether the governor, having achieved what he set out to accomplish three years ago by escorting Statoil out the door, would give UMaine’s seven-year quest the opportunity to demonstrate its technology. He would not.

Angela Monroe, the acting director of the Governor’s Energy Office testified last week that the governor no longer supports the university’s current project. She cited the above-market prices for the electricity that would be borne by ratepayers against the unknown benefits that might or might not ever accrue.

She also said she was not involved in Maine energy policy when the governor had supported the UMaine project in 2013, but believed that “Monhegan should vote on the project so their will can be determined.” This is like the governor saying that a natural gas pipeline or a transmission line to bring Canadian hydropower to Maine should be left to decisions of the affected communities, which of course is not the governor’s position on those forms of energy.

One of the bill’s opponent’s, George Hart of Tenant’s Harbor, an independent energy consultant familiar with the project, spoke about the damage that has already been done in risk-averse capital markets by Maine’s treatment of Statoil. “Maine is a dangerous place to invest in,” said Hart. The whole point of a demonstration, he said, is to enable investors to price risk – including determining how much electricity can be produced at what cost. But political risk is the most expensive form of risk because it is so mercurial and unpredictable.

The governor and his Energy Office have not only damaged Maine’s reputation among investors, but they have also elevated NIMBY-ism into a state policy for vast new areas of the Gulf of Maine. The only question now is whether the Legislature will extinguish Maine’s once promising, but now rapidly diminishing offshore wind opportunity.

Philip Conkling is an independent consultant based in Camden and author of six books on a variety of environmental topics.