AUGUSTA — More than five years ago, Maine set ambitious goals to spur wind power development aimed at helping wean the state off fossil fuels. But now Republican Gov. Paul LePage says the targets don’t really help the state and are so far out of reach as to be meaningless, so why have them?
A bill recently introduced by the governor would do away with the megawatt targets and replace them with goals to expand economic opportunities and lower electricity prices. Wind proponents call it an attack on renewable energy, but LePage’s administration says it will spark a conversation about how the state can bolster its energy policy to benefit Mainers.
“If we are going to have wind development, how can we maximize the benefits to Maine people who are struggling with very high energy costs and … promote economic development at the same time?” said Patrick Woodcock, director of the governor’s Energy Office.
Woodcock has floated the idea of removing the wind energy generation goals in the past, but this is the first time a bill has been introduced. A public hearing on the measure will be held Wednesday.
Under the 2008 law signed by Democratic Gov. John Baldacci, Maine has sought to produce at least 2,000 megawatts of electricity through wind projects by 2015 and 3,000 megawatts by 2020, or enough to power about 900,000 homes.
The goals have long been viewed as lofty, but proponents say they’re essential in attracting investment.
While Maine leads New England in wind power generation, the state currently produces only about 450 megawatts of it, or enough to supply about 175,000 households. To meet its 3,000 megawatt goal, about 600 more wind turbines – roughly three times as many in Maine now – would need to be built, according to a recent report from the conservation advocacy group Maine Audubon.
Democratic Senate President Justin Alfond of Portland, who often clashes with the governor on renewable energy issues, said the proposal seems to be part of LePage’s continued attack on wind power, pointing to the administration’s maneuvering to halt Statoil’s offshore wind project last year.
“(The bill) takes away years of work around setting these goals and inserts one man’s interpretation of what he’d like to see around wind,” Alfond said. “What he appears to be doing is creating more barriers and lots of ambiguous language about the future of wind.”
Renewable energy advocates say stripping the megawatt goals could send a negative message to investors about Maine’s commitment to wind power. They claim that wind development has already had significant economic benefits for the state and it will become more affordable and create thousands more Maine jobs as the state inches toward its goals.
“At what amount will the administration become supportive of wind power? What’s the rate benefit that they’re looking to see so that they’ll stop criticizing the industry?” said Jeremy Payne, executive director of the Maine Renewable Energy Association.
Anti-wind group Friends of Maine Mountains, which is backing the governor’s bill, contends that officials didn’t realize the amount of push-back wind projects would receive when the goals were written. Several proposed projects have been challenged by citizen opposition groups who’ve raised concerns about the impact on the scenery and on wildlife.
The bill introduced by Republican Rep. Lance Harvell of Farmington on behalf of the governor faces an uncertain future in the Democratic-controlled Legislature. But it has bipartisan support with Senate Democratic Leader Troy Jackson of Allagash as a co-sponsor.
Woodcock said wind power has a future in Maine and rejected the notion that the bill would have any effect on that. There is an enormous appetite for wind power in southern New England and Maine has a robust wind energy resource, he said. But the current goals aren’t helping Maine achieve what the law intended, which is to provide economic development and lower energy costs through wind, he said.
“My job as energy director is to maximize the benefits for the people of Maine,” he said.