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PUC Orders UMaine Consortium to Release Wind Proposal Details
10/08/2013   Reported By: Keith Shortall

State regulators today ordered that a University of Maine-led partnership make public at least some of its plans for a floating wind farm off the coast of Maine. Maine Aqua Ventus has only a matter of weeks to release the information, but will work with regulators to protect its competitive position. Keith Shortall reports.

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PUC Orders UMaine Consortium to Release Wind Propo
Originally Aired: 10/8/2013 5:30 PM

Earlier this month, Maine Aqua Ventus presented its wind farm proposal to the Maine Public Utilities Commission. The document includes the estimated cost to ratepayers of the power it would generate.

But the UMaine consortium sought to keep the project information confidential, on the grounds that its competitors - including the Norwegian company Statoil - might otherwise glean an advantage. But Statoil, Democratic state lawmakers, and several environmental groups have all since urged the PUC to make the document public.

After morning deliberations, the Maine Public Utilities Commission reached its conclusion. "The commission decided by a 2-to-1 vote that some portion of the report should be made public," says PUC Chair Tom Welch.

Welch says the company will work with commission staff to decide what information must be kept confidential, in an effort to protect AquaVentus' competitive interests. At the same time, says Welch, it's important that the public have a sense of what's being considered for regulatory approval.

"There clearly is a significant public interest," Welch says. "This application does have some history attached to it, and I think if we can conclude that there is no significant competitive disadvantage to having public disclosure, we can think of lots of reasons why public disclosure makes sense - even though it's a little bit unusual in this context for us to open it up quite that much."

The "context" of this case can be a bit confusing. The PUC had already granted approval of a power contract with Statoil for a full-scale demonstration wind farm project off Boothbay Harbor, which would generate about 12 megawatts of electricity. Gov. Paul LePage, who disapproved of the deal, intervened, and managed to get the Legislature to order the PUC to reopen the bid process.

That maneuver opened the door for Maine Aqua Ventus, which submitted confidential plans for a 12-megawatt demonstration project off Monhegan Island on Sept 1. Pressure has since mounted from outside groups to make public more of the details, such as cost and efficiency estimates.

"This is a matter that has generated a tremendous amount of public interest," says Beth Nagusky, the Maine Director of Environment Northeast, which joined the Conservation Law Foundation in calling for the release of information. "We're real excited about developing this vast, clean, carbon-free, renewable resource, and we want to see the information given to the public so we can evaluate the proposals, and help move this forward as quickly as possible."

The attorney representing Maine Aqua Ventus says he doesn't agree with the PUC's decision to order more disclosure. But Jeffrey Thaler says his client will comply with its terms.

"We're disappointed that the commission voted as it did," Thaler says. "However, we will be providing a redacted version of our proposal to staff in response to the order, and we'll do that in a timely fashion."

Thaler says the company will work with PUC staff to produce an edited version of its proposal by the end of this month, and a so-called "term sheet" would be made public by the middle of November. The PUC will still eventually have to decide on the competing bids for a limited demonstration project.

In the meantime, Statoil and Maine Aqua Ventus are competing nationally with five other companies for $46 million in federal energy grants, which are expected to be awarded this spring. Thaler says that Maine Aqua Ventus should not be put at an unfair disadvantage at any level.

"Also, similarly, we would prefer not to have to go head-to-head against Statoil at the Public Utilities Commission," Thaler says. "Rather, we think it would be in the best interests of the state of Maine if both proposals go forward from Maine down to Washington and the Department of Energy, with term sheets or contracts, and then let the Department of Energy choose among the seven projects."

In a separate - and also divided - vote, the PUC also granted Statoil's request to allow its attorneys to review Maine Aqua Ventus' entire unedited proposal, a decision that Thaler says he is discussing with his client - and may ask the PUC to formally reconsider.

Statoil, which has since put its project on hold, did not provide comment by airtime.


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