It will be some time before we know exactly why the U.S. Department of Energy chose last week to give major support to ocean wind projects in Oregon and New Jersey but only token support for Maine Aqua Ventus, a project of the University of Maine and private partners. But the meddling, interference and outright hostility to the industry from the state’s chief executive could not have helped.
Gov. Paul LePage has made no secret of his disdain for a green power industry that has invested more than $1 billion in Maine over the last decade and could invest a billion more if conditions were right. Even greater than the direct investment would be the benefits Maine could derive if it were to become the center of the offshore wind industry, which could produce a wide range of jobs in engineering, construction and environmental consulting, in addition to the manufacture and maintenance of power-generating equipment.
But it takes patience and a long-term commitment to build a new industry from scratch, and under LePage’s leadership, Maine has shown neither. That might have given the Department of Energy pause when it was deciding where to send a $50 million grant last week, and it also could shake the confidence of private investors, who know that any return from investing in a new technology won’t come in the near term.
The last thing we need is a reputation as a state that keeps changing its mind. LePage has abandoned years of bipartisan consensus on the development of a renewable energy industry here. The decision by the Department of Energy to bypass Maine for a grant may have been made in Washington, but it likely was influenced by decisions made in Augusta.
The most prominent one involved the Norwegian energy company Statoil, which canceled its plan to invest $120 million on an experimental offshore wind farm off Castine.
Last year, LePage used his veto power and influence with the Republican caucus of the Maine Senate to back out of a power purchase contract for Statoil that already had been approved by the Public Utilities Commission.
The contract would have given Statoil an above-market rate for the power it produced at its experimental site, but it could have grown into something much more valuable.
At the time, the governor and his allies said their sabotage of the Statoil deal (the company moved its development plan to Scotland, citing Maine’s difficult politics) was intended as a boost for Maine Aqua Ventus, which had not been ready to submit a competing proposal to the PUC at the same time Statoil did.
With Statoil out of the way, Aqua Ventus was able to sign a power purchase deal with the PUC in February, but it did not fare as well with the Department of Energy, getting beaten out by companies in several other states, including Principle Power’s entry in Oregon. That stung because Principle originally had worked in Maine as a possible partner for the university but left the state in 2010, saying that the university had made unreasonable demands. Now Principle, not Aqua Ventus, has the DOE’s support to perfect its floating turbine technology.
The race is far from over. Maine still could be the hub of a thriving ocean wind industry.
The waters off our coast have the strongest and most reliable wind resource on the East Coast. Aqua Ventus could attract more private investment to continue to develop its technology. It may get a second chance at the Department of Energy money if one of the other winners stumbles.
But Maine was more likely to have a bright future in this sector last week than it does today, and it was in better shape a year ago, when there were two viable projects, than it is now, with only one.
The governor says that he doesn’t believe in picking winners and losers when it comes to power generation, but he has not been impartial when it comes to the wind industry. In order to save consumers less than a dollar a month on their electric bills, he has made life difficult for people who want to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in the Maine economy and create thousands of jobs.
As the governor likes to say, “Capital goes where it’s welcome,” and it’s clear that this kind of capital isn’t welcome here. That couldn’t have escaped the notice of the DOE, and private investors won’t miss it, either.