Federal officials weren’t convinced that the technology behind a demonstration wind-power project led by the University of Maine would be less expensive than its rivals, which is one reason that Maine failed to win a highly competitive $47 million grant for the project’s development, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins said Tuesday.
At issue was documentation of whether Maine’s much-touted floating design, made of concrete and composites, could be built for less money than competing steel units, she said. That’s the most specific explanation Collins said she could glean from a phone call she made to U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz after last week’s eagerly awaited but disappointing grant announcement.
Moniz did agree that the Department of Energy would provide a “thorough briefing” for Collins and her staff, she said, and for U.S. Sen. Angus King and Maine Prime Technologies, the UMaine spinoff that has developed the prototype, Maine Aqua Ventus.
Hopes of creating a deep-water wind power industry were dealt a serious blow when the Department of Energy passed over Maine for the grant in its Offshore Wind Advance Technology Demonstration Projects competition. Instead, Maine will get $3 million for continued engineering. It also became an alternate, to replace any of the winners that can’t move to commercial operation by 2017, as required for the grant.
Maine lost out to its leading rival, Seattle-based Principle Power, which is planning a semi-submersible, floating steel turbine off Coos Bay, Oregon. The other winners were Fishermen’s Energy in New Jersey, for a project off Atlantic City, and Dominion Virginia Power, for a project off Virginia Beach.
The decision left Collins and others wondering how the Department of Energy carried out its selection process. It also fueled speculation about the role of politics and public policy in a decision rooted in technical and financial data.
“I care a great deal about this and I’m really surprised at the decision,” Collins told the Portland Press Herald. “It’s just difficult to understand why the administration didn’t choose the university as one of the projects.”
For instance, the New Jersey project has yet to secure a contract for selling its power and has twice been rejected by that state’s Board of Public Utilities, which said in March that the venture isn’t financially viable. The project’s developers are appealing the rejection in court.
Also, the New Jersey project calls for a steel foundation that’s meant to be less costly than other in-the-seabed designs, but is very similar to the one proposed in Virginia. A stated goal of the federal program is to fund breakthrough technologies for a U.S. offshore wind power industry, so Collins questioned why both New Jersey and Virginia were picked as winners.
QUESTIONS ON SELECTION SCORING
Seeking those and other answers, the Press Herald emailed a list of questions to a Department of Energy official who helped oversee the competition, Jose Zayas, a program manager in the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. The newspaper also asked to see any scoring, ranking or written assessment for the six finalists. The department didn’t respond to the request Tuesday.
The selection process is of special interest to Jake Ward, UMaine’s vice president for innovation and economic development. He was among the officials who went to Washington, D.C., last month to be interviewed by a panel that advised the Department of Energy on which projects to pick.
Ward said Maine Aqua Ventus has to know what shortcomings were identified so it can correct them in the next year of engineering work.
Maine Aqua Ventus submitted 7,000 pages of documents before the panel interview. The two-hour session was conducted by about 20 people from the agency, government laboratories and the private sector. Ward said he doesn’t know the form in which the panel provided its input to the Department of Energy or how much weight the interview carried in the selection process.
“Nothing I came away with gave us an indication that we had any issues to be concerned about,” he said.
COLLINS BACKS OCEAN WIND POWER
Collins said her discussion with Moniz revealed that the process featured a point grading system. Asked if she thinks that information should be made public, Collins said that with millions of dollars in taxpayer money being distributed, it should be released, except for proprietary data.
Collins has invested considerable political capital in offshore wind power. She has steered millions of dollars in federal money to UMaine’s Composites Center. She helped Maine win $4 million to build a one-eighth-scale model of its floating turbine and get in the running for the $47 million grant.
A moderate Republican, Collins continues to envision a wind power industry in the Gulf of Maine that could someday create thousands of jobs. Her stance puts her at odds with many other Republicans, including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
Although he initially offered some support for offshore wind power, Christie has more recently moved away from it. Environmental groups speculate that Christie’s retrenchment is reflected in the unanimous rejection of the New Jersey project by that state’s Board of Public Utilities. They say it’s tied to the governor’s presidential aspirations and his desire to distance himself from renewable energy, according to coverage in The Star-Ledger.
In its rejection, the utilities board said the above-market power contracts associated with the project would cost ratepayers hundreds of millions of dollars.
Maine Gov. Paul LePage, also a Republican, made a similar argument against a $120 million offshore wind project proposed in 2011 by Statoil, the Norwegian energy conglomerate.
Statoil had an approved power purchase contract from the Maine Public Utilities Commission and was a finalist in the federal competition. It withdrew and left Maine after LePage pressured the Legislature into passing a law that had the effect of reopening the PUC process and giving a belated boost to Aqua Ventus.
OFFICIAL: MAINE BLEW ITS CHANCES
There’s no way to know how or if those political actions influenced the grant selection process, but there is speculation.
Paul Williamson, director of the Maine Ocean & Wind Industry Initiative, was at the American Wind Energy Association’s annual conference in Las Vegas last week, when the grants were announced. He said one theory among participants is that the Obama administration chose New Jersey to put Christie on the spot and make it harder for him to reject renewable energy.
Williamson noted that in 2008, there was a chance for Principle Power and UMaine to work together on a demonstration project. Principle Power abandoned its plans two years later, citing Maine’s parochial politics and unreasonable conditions set by the university. The university has denied those assertions.
Statoil went on to build the world’s first commercial-scale floating steel turbine, in the North Sea. Principle Power followed suit with a similar project in Portugal.
Williamson is clearly frustrated by the grant awards and expressed the view that Maine companies lost their best opportunities for an offshore wind power industry when Principle Power and Statoil left.
“Ego and provincial thinking, the thought that we could do it all ourselves, and the politicians who threw out the opportunity to work with Principle and Statoil,” he said. “Now the chickens have come home to roost.”