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Last-Minute Amendment Puts Maine Wind Pilot Project in Jeopardy
06/27/2013   Reported By: Susan Sharon

The Maine Senate last night joined the House in overriding the governor's veto of an energy bill intended to increase investments in energy efficiency initiatives and expand natural gas capacity. Supporters say it could help homeowners and businesses lower electricity costs. But at the governor's request, lawmakers have also approved a separate measure that some say could jeopardize a first-in-the-nation, offshore, deepwater wind project planned by one of the world's largest energy companies. And as Susan Sharon reports, at the very least, they worry it sends a negative message about Maine's business climate.

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Last-Minute Amendment Puts Maine Wind Pilot Projec Listen

When the Maine Public Utilities Commission approved Norwegian energy giant Statoil's floating wind turbine test project in January, PUC Chairman Tom Welch said the $120 million project, known as Hywind Maine would put the state on the map as a leader in innovation and expertise.

That's because Statoil intends to lay the groundwork for a burgeoning offshore wind industry and use Maine as the launching pad to do it, potentially investing more than $200 million in capital investments along the way, and, if successful, create hundreds of jobs. But lawmakers may have torpedoed the plan with an amendment they passed this week.

"This amendment only requires that the Public Utilities Commission conduct a second round of competitive solicitations for a deepwater, offshore wind energy project," said Republican Sen. Edward Youngblood.

Specifically, Youngblood's amendment says the University of Maine's deepwater offshore wind energy pilot project must be considered eligible to compete for a final contract from the PUC. "I didn't graduate from there but I consider it - since I live in the great state of Maine - our university."

But despite UMaine's cutting-edge research in offshore wind, industry insiders and lawmakers alike say the university is not an energy conglomerate with the resources, experience and investment capabilies that Statoil has. They also point out that during the request for proposals for the offshore wind energy pilot project, Statoil was the only company that applied.
UMaine even wrote a letter of support to the PUC saying, "Attracting Statoil to Maine is like attracting Apple, GM or Google to Maine."

Democratic Senate President Justin Alfond, of Portland, spoke with representatives of Statoil after the passage of the amendment to try to reassure them that support remains strong for the project.

"They said to us that they have to really reflect and understand what this amendment does before they can and will consider moving forward," Alfond says.

Alfond calls the last-minute amendment "politics at its worst."  He says it was an attempt by Senate Republicans to appease Gov. LePage for his dissatisfaction with the energy bill. which - among other things - calls for investments in energy efficiency.  The governor is also not a big fan of wind development. 

And in a written statement, LePage says, "The hard-working citizens who fund the University every year would be pleased to see that their ratepayer dollars are going to a project that will benefit Mainers, rather than subsidizing a foreign oil company." 

Alfond points out that the governor is fond of saying that "capital goes where it's welcome and stays where it's appreciated."  But he says the governor and the Legislature have just sent an entirely different message with the amendment.

"What I fear is that we have a multinational company, Statoil, that will walk - that will walk away from the state of Maine," Alfond says. "When we've tried for years and years to open the doors to companies to come into our state, we are now saying, 'We do not want you in this state and we're willing to change an agreement with you on the fly in order to prevent you from potentially coming.'"

"This legislation alters the rules of the game two years into the process," says Paul Williamson, the executive director of the Maine Ocean and Wind Industry Initiative. "And in doing so sends a message of Maine being perceived as an unstable business partner when working with new investment and technology development with international companies around the world."

Still, Williamson says he's confident that there's room for both Statoil and the University of Maine to work together. Reached by telephone, Habib Dagher of the University of Maine says his group has no intention of missing the Sept. 1 deadline for a proposal submission as called for in the amendment.

At the same time, he also says he hopes Statoil does not throw in the towel. A spokesperson for the company did not return a request for comment by airtime.


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