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Maine Regulators Approve Floating Wind Pilot Project, to Gov's Dismay
01/24/2013   Reported By: Susan Sharon

Supporters say it's a vote for hope and innovation that could put Maine on the map as a leader in the development of alternative energy. The Maine Public Utilities Commission today voted two-to-one to approve a deepwater, floating wind turbine test project for the Gulf of Maine. If the developer goes along with a list of conditions, it will be the first project of its kind in the United States. Susan Sharon reports.

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Just a few months ago the prospects for a deep water, floating wind turbine test site in the waters off Boothbay Harbor were looking slim despite widespread support from Maine's business and environmental communities. Two of the three members of the PUC were expressing concern about the 12-megawatt project's high cost to produce electricity for ratepayers and a lack of guranteed economic benefit.

So Norwegian energy giant Statoil went back to the drawing board, shaved off the cost, added some things and resubmitted its proposal. For PUC Chairman Tom Welch it was enough to tip the scales in favor of the $120 million pilot project.

"I have no doubt that the pilot itself will bring substantial knowledge and experience in offshore development to Maine," Welch said. "This benefit may well be the most valuable aspect of the contract."

Welch says that whatever the assessment of the future of offshore energy development, there is no doubt about the level of global interest and excitement in it. And Welch said not withstanding the high cost to electricity ratepayers, putting Maine on the map as a leader in innovation and expertise has value, especially when it comes to attracting young people to the state.

That message, and Welch's willingness to reconsider, was welcome news to Parker Hadlock, general manager for wind energy services at the Pittsfield-based Cianbro Corporation.

"The part that Tom Welch talked about, and the opportunity for our young people in this state, probably spoke to me more than anything else in that room," Hadlock says. "There is something exciting here in the state of Maine to stay and be part of, and, you know, that generation is wild about doing something different than our generation did in setting our country up."

Cianbro has been involved in wind power development projects from Maine to Maryland. Hadlock says he understands why some are worried about the risk. Statoil's proposal suggests that ratepayers pay 27 cents per kilowatt hour for electriicty, much higher than what consumers currently pay. But supporters say that cost will likely go down as the technology is improved.

Still, Gov. Paul LePage is concerned that Maine's high energy costs are already stifling economic growth. In a written statement he called the PUC's decision "irresponsible." Patrick Woodcock is the state director of the governor's energy office.

"This is a huge commitment for the 800,000 ratepayers in Maine to support a major pilot project on the order of about $200 million from ratepayers alone," he says. "And what we were specifically concerned about were twofold: one, the cost impact on ratepayers, and assurances that the economic activity from the project would originate in Maine."

Statoil has attempted to allay those fears by pledging to rely on local suppliers to provide building materials and equipment, and on Maine's research institutions for technical support. But the PUC has included several conditions in the contract with Statoil. Kristin Aamodt is the project manager.

"We're very grateful for the commission's willingness to accept the term sheets," she says. "Naturally, we have to review the conditions. But obviously this is a big milestone for the project and we're very grateful for that."

Maine Senate Majority Leader Seth Goodall, of Richmond, is also grateful. He thinks the project could transform Maine's economy. "One of the greatest opportunities that we can capitalize on by the approval of the PUC today is to strengthen our overall economy and create new jobs, new innovative jobs, for Maine's work force and our college graduates."

The pilot project alone is expected to employ about 150 people.



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