The House solidly approved a resolution Thursday demanding approval of a 150-turbine offshore wind park east of Rehoboth Beach.
The 25-11 vote was the clearest legislative endorsement so far of the $1.5 billion construction project and came as project supporters lobbied to head off a damaging report that is soon to be released by a Senate committee.
“I think that’s a significant vote, because it represented not only upstate and downstate, but it’s also bipartisan,” said Rep. Robert J. Valihura, R-Beau Tree, the resolution’s prime sponsor.
Environmental groups also cheered the vote.
“I wouldn’t want to be the legislator who killed the wind farm bill,” said Joan Deaver, president of Citizens for a Better Sussex.
The resolution now heads to an uncertain future in the upper chamber, where Democratic and Republican leaders have had more reservations about the project’s cost, fairness and effect on Delmarva Power.
Officials in December tabled a plan that would have ordered Delmarva to sign a 25-year contract to purchase electricity from Bluewater Wind LLC’s proposed wind farm. The Public Service Commission and two other other state agencies supported the forced purchase, but the Legislature’s Controller General Russsell T. Larson reported finding no consensus in the General Assembly.
Larson, who is appointed by a committee of House and Senate caucus leaders, said Thursday that “now it’s up to the Senate.” He declined to speculate on what might happen if both chambers approve the resolution.
The resolution, HCR38, also would require the Public Service Commission to determine if costs for the Bluewater Wind project should be distributed to all Delmarva customers, rather than residential and small commercial users. Delmarva’s large industrial users filed a letter opposing the Bluewater deal several months ago.
Senate Majority Leader Anthony J. DeLuca, D-Varlano, said Thursday that he hopes a Senate panel will quickly finish its secret review of a report on the Bluewater deal. A draft version discussed in caucus on Wednesday concluded the project was too costly, according to lawmakers who reviewed the 91-page document.
‘Very complicated’ issue
Gov. Ruth Ann Minner issued a statement late Thursday describing the issue as “very complicated.”
She said Bluewater had a “credible” proposal, but “there are still significant concerns about the impact on Delaware ratepayers that have not been addressed to everyone’s satisfaction. A project of this magnitude requires extensive study and debate and that process is ongoing.”
Bluewater Wind LLC wants Delmarva Power to buy 300 megawatts of electricity from a proposed offshore wind farm, backed up by an on-land gas-fired plant. The plan emerged from a nearly 18-month bidding process ordered by lawmakers in 2006.
Legislators called for the Public Service Commission-supervised process to stabilize electricity prices and supplies after a steep rate increase that followed utility deregulation.
Delmarva Power has disputed both the need for and cost of the contract, and more recently argued that it could provide customers with nonpolluting wind power from onshore plants for one-third to one-half less than Bluewater’s deal.
Bluewater hopes for Senate OK
Bluewater spokesman Jim Lanard described Thursday’s vote as a “very important step,” adding: “I think the real issue is that this gives guidance to the controller general. The Senate may decide to give guidance a different way, but the important thing is one of two houses has given guidance to the controller general to support the contract with Bluewater.”
“What we’re hoping for now is that the Senate provides guidance to the controller general to support that contract that Bluewater Wind negotiated with Delmarva,” Lanard said.
Others were less happy.
“I think to send a message forcing a for-profit company, when you’re in a time of deregulation [to sign a contract] is completely the wrong thing to do,” said Rep. Gerald Hocker, R-Ocean View, who voted against the bill. He warned that some customers would abandon Delmarva, raising the costs of the wind farm for remaining residents.
Delmarva ‘baffled’ by passage
Delmarva Power spokesman Bill Yingling released a prepared statement questioning the House action.
“We’re baffled as to why House members would vote to have our customers pay up to twice as much as they need to for renewable energy, especially since this is just two years after we had to explain to them another rate increase,” Yingling said, referring to a one-time 59 percent average rate hike that followed a six-year freeze.
“We believe the Senate will be much more deliberate about the cost impact and will make a more informed decision that balances the need for renewable energy and the need to keep rates low,” Yingling said.
Lawmakers acted after a day of heavy lobbying in both chambers on both sides of the issue. Delaware Audubon Society conservation Chairman Nicholas A. DiPasquale warned supporters in an e-mail Thursday that “crunch time” had arrived.
“An intense effort is underway this morning and early afternoon to pressure the House into turning down the wind farm,” DiPasquale wrote Thursday. “Your voice must be counted today!”
Approval came after the House rejected an amendment offered by Rep. Daniel Short, R-Seaford, that would have required a review of a new, competing proposal by Delmarva Power to buy wind power from land-based businesses in states to the west.
A summary distributed to lawmakers by Delmarva on Wednesday noted that the company had received bids for up to 1,697 megawatts of wind power from Pennsylvania, Maryland, Illinois and Indiana, “more than enough” to meet the company’s needs.
Prices ranged from $47 to $61 per megawatt less than Bluewater’s, or 51 percent to 63 percent of the offshore rate, the utility said.
“If the bid process was redone today, I suspect it would be dramatically different,” Short said.
But other lawmakers said that Bluewater’s project offered real benefits to Delaware.
“I’m voting with my gut and I’m voting for the legislation, because I think it’s in the best interests of the people I represent,” said House Minority Leader Robert F. Gilligan, D-Sherwood Park.
Legislators “may not have known what we were getting into” when they ordered the Public Service Commission to seek new power sources in 2006, “but we got into it and the only way of getting out of it at this point” is voting on the resolution.
All eyes on upper chamber
Gilligan said he was unsure what the Senate will do next.
“My feeling is they probably won’t consider it,” Gilligan said, noting that he and others might demand that House and Senate caucus leaders convene a meeting to sort the issue out.
The Senate Energy & Transit Committee, chaired by Sen. Harris B. McDowell III, D-Wilmington North, is reviewing a draft report on the contract proposal, with a goal of completing the work before the budget-writing break begins in two weeks.
“I don’t think anybody in the General Assembly is against wind. I think the issues that people have are based on the fairness of the contract,” DeLuca said.
DeLuca said that the Senate Energy & Transit Committee could meet two or three times more before releasing a report on the deal.
He said members would go over the report “section by section.”
He added that some lawmakers are concerned that Delmarva’s standard service customers, who represent 28 percent of the state’s electricity users, would pay for a project with statewide significance.
“It may well be modified,” DeLuca said of the report.
By Jeff Montgomery
11 April 2008
|Wind Watch relies entirely
on User Funding