AUGUSTA, Maine – The Maine Public Utilities Commission ruled Tuesday that information included in an offshore wind-energy proposal spearheaded by the University of Maine must be made public by month’s end.
The 2-1 vote, with Commissioner Mark Vannoy dissenting, dashed the university’s hope to keep confidential the details of its plan to demo a floating wind farm in the Gulf of Maine.
“As a general principle, the more information that’s in the public view, the better, because people may have interesting, important things to say to us,” said PUC Chairman Thomas Welch in an interview after PUC deliberations took place in Hallowell.
Still, Welch said the situation was “unique” for several reasons, not least of which is the high-profile legislative context of the bid submitted by Maine Aqua Ventus I GP LLC, a company formed by Cianbro, Emera and Maine Prime Technologies, which is a for-profit spinoff the university created to commercialize its offshore wind technology.
Legislators in June, prodded by Gov. Paul LePage, passed a bill requiring the PUC to reopen its request for proposals for a large, offshore wind development in the Gulf of Maine. The PUC’s original request for proposals in 2010 resulted in a proposal by the Norwegian firm Statoil, which saw its plan to build a pilot 12-megawatt, four-turbine floating wind farm 10 miles off Boothbay Harbor approved.
At the time Statoil’s proposal was approved, UMaine was not far enough along in developing its own floating wind turbine, VolturnUS, to submit its own bid. LePage forced the competitive process open again in June, and Statoil promptly put its Maine plans on hold. Maine Aqua Ventus submitted its proposal in September.
Welch also said it made sense for at least part of Maine Aqua Ventus’ proposal to be made public because so much of UMaine’s wind energy efforts have already been disclosed to media and the public.
The Public Utilities Commission must decide by the end of the year whether to give Maine Aqua Ventus a power purchase agreement, which would outline the rate for which the utility would be paid for power produced by its offshore wind efforts. Statoil received a term sheet, but did not receive an official power purchase agreement before the PUC reopened its process.
The contract is necessary to be eligible for millions of dollars of federal Department of Energy grants, for which Statoil and UMaine are both competing.
It’s not unusual for submissions to the PUC to be confidential, with companies regularly citing competitive reasons for keeping the nature of their bids private. But some disputed UMaine’s right to confidentiality because the research and development that led to the project was publicly funded.
Environment Northeast and the Conservation Law Foundation both requested that the proposal be made public. Sen. John Cleveland, D-Auburn, and Rep. Barry Hobbins, D-Saco, co-chairmen of the Joint Standing Committee on Energy, Utilities and Technology, sent a letter to the PUC requesting that at least some of the proposal be made available for public scrutiny.
The commission is ultimately responsible for deciding what information will and will not be confidential, and asked Maine Aqua Ventus to work with PUC staffers to identify what information is proprietary and competitive in nature, redact it, and make the rest of the information available.
An attorney for UMaine’s project, Jeffrey Thaler, said he disagreed with the decision, but expected his client to comply. However, Thaler said he may appeal a second PUC decision handed down Tuesday, which made the entirety of Maine Aqua Ventus’ proposal available for Statoil’s lawyers to review.
“That would be unprecedented, and we think unfair,” he said Tuesday. “To give them our full confidential proposal would put us at a significant disadvantage.”
Statoil had requested access to Maine Aqua Ventus’ entire, unedited submission. The PUC on Tuesday voted 2-1 to give it to them. Vannoy was again the dissenting commissioner.
Welch said it was “not unprecedented” to allow attorneys-only access to confidential information, and said the information would be subject to a protective order barring the lawyers from allowing any of the proprietary information to be given to the business side of Statoil.
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