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Maine energy official backs away from offshore wind criticism

Gov. Paul LePage’s top energy official says he may have spoke prematurely when he recently expressed concern over the high price of electricity produced by offshore wind farms. Ken Fletcher, head of the Maine Office of Energy Independence and Security, was quoted recently as being worried by estimates that offshore wind power will cost around 27 cents per kilowatt hour, 11 cents higher than existing rates. But after a meeting with the man leading the state’s research efforts in offshore wind, Fletcher says those concerns may have been unjustified.

“I think there was a little bit of a misunderstanding which I may have caused,” Fletcher says. He says he based his 27 cents estimate on the cost of a planned pilot project due to start producing power next year off Monhegan Island. He now accepts that this price factors in the cost of research and development.

“This really is R&D work in the beginning to really understand what the potential is and to learn as to what things need to be put in place to bring it to a commercial operation,” he says. “So I think that we’re in alignment with that and the administration, I think, wants to understand what they can do to be a partner with them.”

Fletcher says a meeting he had late Tuesday afternoon with UMaine engineering professor Habib Dagher shed light on the cost issue. Dagher heads the DeepCWind Consortium, a coalition dedicated to making Maine a leader in offshore wind technology.

Dagher says the early stages of any big project are going to be costly. “It’s almost like asking GM to come here to Maine and build a car manufacturing plant and only build five cars. This five cars will be very expensive.”

Addressing an International Ocean Energy conference in Portland earlier in the day, Dagher explained that when the technology is eventually used on an industrial scale, it will lead to significantly lower electricity prices. “It’s all about dollars per kilowatt hour. At the end of the day if we can’t meet the price of other technologies we’re not going to win this battle,” he said.

Dagher hopes the project will achieve sufficient scale is to be able to produce competitively-priced electricity by 2020. The culimination of the 20-year plan in 2030 foresees deepwater wind farms in the Gulf of Maine producing a sizeable five gigawatts of electricity annually, at a cost of as little as eight cents a kilowatt hour.

Dagher says this is more than twice the needs of the state. “The goal is to use some of this energy for home heating and transportation, and then of course sell the rest of it to the New England grid.”

Dagher acknowledges that this is a long way from being a reality, and will require a lot of investment and research. He says a full-size offshore wind turbine will cost between $20 million and $50 million to put into operation.

The meeting with Ken Fletcher may have smoothed things over with state officials, but it doesn’t alter the fact that Gov. Paul LePage has taken a stand against increasing electricity rates as a way of making more money available for alternative power sources.

This, coupled with those recent media reports about his adminisration’s lukewarm attitude towards offshore wind power has made life a little harder for those trying to drum up investment for Maine’s offshore wind potential.

Paul Williamson heads the Maine Wind Industry Initiative. “There has been some messages that have gotten out that have, in some cases, been a little inaccurate and we have had to work with some our international companies that expressed interest in Maine to make sure that they understand the real message and having been picking up the incorrect message that’s been kind of projected,” Williamson says.

Williamson says the LePage administration and Maine’s offshore wind advocates are basically on the same page–they want to bring business to the state.

One skeptic is James LaBreque. He runs a high-tech engineering firm in Bangor, and since the mid-1980s has been an occasional adviser and consultant at UMaine’s mechanical engineering department. He also provides what he describes as informal technical advice to Gov. Paul LePage on engineering issues.

LaBreque doubts the wisdom of investing heavily in a project which has not yet proved itself. “They’re putting the cart before the horse,” he says. “You cannot say, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to generate this electricity,’ and then take millions of dollars to figure out how we’re going to do it, ‘but by the way it’s going to cost you 8 or 10 cents a kilowatt hour when we’re done.’ I don’t think we’re being upfront and fair with the public by making such claims and I think it’s time we starting debating those types of issues at the university.”

Habib Dagher is not discouraged by critics. Instead, he highlights a recent UMaine survey of 6,000 Mainers that shows 95 percent of them in support of deepwater offshore wind. He also points out that last June, Maine voters approved an $11 million bond proposal to fund the DeepC Wind Consortium’s research efforts.

“The population of Maine didn’t just say we like offshore wind, they said we’re willing to spend our money to support the development of this technology,” he says.

The Energy Ocean conference runs through Thursday.