AUGUSTA — A 12-megawatt offshore wind project a few miles off Maine’s coast could transform the state into a leader of the infant industry, supporters say. But first developers must overcome their first major hurdle: getting the green light from a panel of state regulators this week.
The Maine Public Utilities Commission is poised to vote Tuesday on whether to grant initial approval for a state contract to the University of Maine and its partner companies, called Maine Aqua Ventus, to build a two-turbine pilot project off the coast of Monhegan Island.
The vote will come nearly a year after the PUC gave the first nod to Norwegian company Statoil for its own offshore wind project, which was spiked after maneuvering by Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s administration. Now those who’ve long urged the state to capitalize on its wind resources are keeping a close eye on the PUC’s decision this week.
“We need to start reaping the benefits of offshore wind, both the economic benefits and renewable (energy) benefits,” said Sean Mahoney, executive vice president of the Conservation Law Foundation, who criticized the administration for scuttling Statoil’s project last year.
The PUC’s decision is significant in terms of financing for the project and essential in helping it win a $50 million federal energy grant, said Jeff Thaler, assistant counsel to the university. He said he’s cautiously optimistic that the proposal will be approved because it has received strong support from the public, which shows there’s a hunger to take concrete steps to combat climate change.
“Overall, we think that people are much more aware of the risk of not doing anything and we have to take action,” he said.
The project has gained significant support from lawmakers and business leaders who say those environmental and economic benefits more than outweigh the short-term costs.
Maine Aqua Ventus officials have estimated that the project could create 340 full- and part-time jobs during the three years of planning and construction, and $120 million in investments, half of which would be paid to Maine-based entities.
Electricity from the UMaine project is expected to cost 23 cents per kilowatt hour, significantly higher than current market rates. That comes out to nearly $9 more a year on utility customers’ bills. It’s expected to generate enough power for as many as 7,000 Maine homes, said Jake Ward, vice president for Innovation and Economic Development for UMaine.
The LePage administration had opposed Statoil’s project because, at 27 cents per kilowatt hour, it said ratepayers would be on the hook for $200 million over 20 years. The administration also said the state’s flagship university should have a chance to compete before granting a contract to a foreign company.
The administration first sought to explicitly void Statoil’s project, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press. Eventually, the administration pushed for a bill to reopen the competitive bidding process to let UMaine submit a bid, causing Statoil to withdraw its project last year.
Patrick Woodcock, the governor’s energy director, wrote in a letter to the PUC that the administration believes the Maine Aqua Ventus proposal meets the requirements the state has laid out for an offshore wind supplier. The administration will work with officials to help secure more state and federal funding, “increasing the chances that this research and development will ultimately develop a technology that will provide competitively priced electricity to the Maine ratepayer,” Woodcock said.
Other concerns have been raised by those who will be most directly affected by the project – the residents of Monhegan Island. Some have said that they’re worried about the impact on wildlife and that the sound and sight of the turbines will deter visitors on the tiny island, which relies heavily on tourism.
Thaler said Maine Aqua Ventus is doing everything it can to ensure that all residents have a voice in the discussion as the development moves forward.
“We will continue our dialogue with people on Monhegan, people on shore, the Legislature and others to make this a truly positive experience and a project that will benefit all Mainers and their children and grandchildren – because you’ve really got to look long term,” he said.