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Maine gov’s bill would change state’s windpower goals

Six years into a state plan to charge ahead with wind development, the game may be changing. Gov. Paul LePage has put forth a bill that would shift the goal posts and redefine what the state expects from its wind projects. While the LePage administration argues that the state can and should switch strategies, pro-wind interests say the bill is just the latest attempt to tackle the industry before it can gain any yardage. Jennifer Mitchell reports.

At a public hearing for the bill, Republican House member Lance Harvell of Farmington was flabbergasted that anyone could object to the governor’s proposal.

“You know things are bad in Augusta when a bill to create a state goal to lower electricity costs and expand economic growth is controversial,” Harvell told colelagues.

Harvell says the governor’s bill is simple: to amend the state’s wind goals, which currently focus on specific megawatt targets, to ones that focus instead on economic benefits. And the way to do that, he says, is to roll back and reassess Maine’s basic expectations.

When the state’s wind plan was put forward and signed into law by then-Gov. John Baldacci in 2008, the goals called for Maine to generate at least 2,000 megawatts of wind electricity by 2015, 3,000 megawatts by 2020, and 8,000 by 2030. But as that first yardline approaches, Harvell points out that the state has only managed to gain about 400 megawatts.

“That’s like a field goal kicker coming up 30 yards short of the uprights,” he said.

But worse, he says, is that even if the state manages to make that 2,000-megawatt goal in the next eight months, he and the bill’s supporters doubt that the actual benefit – through electric rates or business development – would have been worth the destruction to Maine’s mountain tops.

Where, he asks, are the wind turbine manufacturing plants? And why have Mainers not seen their power bills slashed? It’s a question of cost-benefit, adds Patrick Woodcock, director of the Governor’s Energy Office. Woodcock says the new bill, LD 1791, takes the focus away from wind power quantity and asks more questions about quality:

“During a permitting process, a developer will say: “This will help meet our wind energy goal. We’re adding megawatts to the state of Maine.’ Well, this would say, ‘Are you lowering electrical rates? And are you expanding economic opportunities?'” Woodcock said.

“Expanded economic opportunites and lowering electrical prices are worthy goals,” says Glen Brand, director of Sierra Club Maine, “and the bill, with such innocuous language sounds sounds like it’s a winner.”

But, says Brand, it really isn’t. The bill makes vague references to economic development, he says, without actually defining what hoops a wind company would have to jump through in order to be granted a permit.

Brand says he and other wind proponents are afraid that the LePage administration will be able to flatten new projects by insisting on unattainable criteria, such as requiring that a new development guarantee a certain number of jobs, or a certain amount of economic gain.

“That would not be the case for any other project in the state,” Brand says. “You know, we would see that as an undue burden. The other part of the bill is to lower electricity prices. Well, it’s impossible, given the complexity, to determine the impact of one particular wind project on electrical prices in Maine.”

And, says Brand, the industry has benefitted Maine – but it’s just getting started. According to the Maine Renewable Energy Association, a group opposing the bill, more than 700 businesses and agencies in Maine have seen direct benefit from the wind industry, including for-profit employers like Cianbro Corporation.

But, says Jeremy Payne, director of MREA, the state runs the risk of creating an unfriendly wind business environment, with at least four of the governor’s weekly addresses over the last year critical of wind.

“That is not the type of message that these production and manufacturing companies are looking for,” Payne says. “They’re looking to be welcomed, not criticized.”

But the LePage administration has long countered that as long as Mainers continue to pay more for their electricity than most other people in the U.S., manufacturing of any sort – wind or otherwise – is unlikely to take off.

The bill is set to to be taken up in a work session Friday.

[audio available]