PORTLAND, Maine – After unveiling a report touting the broader economic benefits of wind power projects in Maine, the head of the Maine Renewable Energy Association on Tuesday afternoon headed to a hearing about a 9-megawatt wind project in Orland.
So did the lobbyist for the statewide anti-wind energy development group, Friends of Maine Mountains.
In light of projections that Maine’s wind power capacity will double by 2018 – adding nearly 700 megawatts – the project in Orland is small. But the size of the project doesn’t necessarily correspond to the size of the conflict.
Local battles, however, were not a part of the study released Tuesday, which came out a day before Republican Gov. Paul LePage, a regular critic of wind energy, is sworn in for a second term and before expected fights over energy policy in the Legislature.
Jeremy Payne, executive director of the Maine Renewable Energy Association, said he expects challenges this year – some old and some new.
“We expect to see a dozen or so bills attacking the industry,” Payne said, including changes to the visual impact standards, sitting concerns and the areas of the state designated for expedited permitting. “To use one of the governor’s favorite lines, I think the concern for the industry is that capital goes where it’s welcome and stays where it’s appreciated. I think there’s a very real risk right now of this investment capital we’re talking about not feeling that appreciation.”
After existing wind farms began producing energy, much of that appreciation has come from other parts of New England and the federal government.
Most Maine wind projects sell their power to markets southern New England that pay more for renewable energy produced here. And the federal government has provided tax credits for wind farms, based on their output, to help support development in the relatively young industry. That program lapsed Dec. 31, 2014, but the projects expected to double Maine’s capacity already have cleared that hurdle for qualifying.
In the report, based on figures provided by wind power companies, the industry invested about $532.5 million in the state from 2006 to 2014 and plans to spend another $745 million from 2015 to 2018 in Maine.
The report only included projects that either lined up long-term power contracts or filed for permits from the state’s Department of Environmental Protection, aiming to isolate projects that already have made significant steps toward completion.
Charlie Colgan, a professor at the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service who wrote the report, of which he says “there is a really significant shift underway with wind power and wind generation in Maine.”
Chris O’Neil, spokesman for Friends of Maine Mountains, criticized the report for “only showing one side of the ledger” and not including the cost to taxpayers of wind industry incentives at the federal level or costs to electricity customers in the form of transmission projects.
“The report is all about the income but nothing about the out-go,” O’Neil wrote in an email.
The report estimates the wind industry will have supported an average of 1,560 jobs per year from 2006 to 2018, in direct employment and indirect jobs supported by, say, the spending of a construction worker at a local hotel or restaurant.
In the long run, buildout of 1.3 gigawatts of power capacity across 18 wind farms would support about 89 direct jobs operating the turbines, with potentially more jobs for repair and maintenance work, the report projects.
There are other upsides not measured in the report, too, according to John Cooney, vice president for finance and development at the Woolwich company Reed & Reed, which in 2006 shifted its focus from public transportation contracts to the energy sector. Reed & Reed gets about half its work from the private sector now and has started on jobs in New York, western Massachusetts, Vermont, Canada and Mexico.
“This industry has given us the opportunity to export expertise out of the state,” Cooney said.
Cooney said the company has retained a service agreement with First Wind through the Massachusetts wind developer’s acquisition by solar energy giant SunEdison.
Patrick Woodcock, director of the Governor’s Energy Office, agreed with the report’s findings that the wind industry has supported “significant construction jobs” but said he thinks lawmakers should and will focus this year on broadening that impact.
That could be through finding if and how relatively stable wind power prices could provide a hedge for Maine utilities – ultimately benefitting electricity customers – and expanding the supply chain within the state for wind projects.
“I think the report shows it’s a shot in the arm for quick construction jobs, and I think we need to do a better job of having long-term benefits,” Woodcock said.
Woodcock said the market for renewable energy credits in Maine is dominated by biomass because Massachusetts and Connecticut disqualified that type of energy as renewable and it’s able to accept lower prices on Maine’s renewable credit market.
Outside of the renewable credit market, Woodcock said that what the region decides to do about natural gas capacity also could affect the market for wind power, which a utility might lock in to as a hedge against volatility from other power sources. The price of wind power can provide more stability because the price of the wind itself doesn’t change, as the price of natural gas or oil does.
LePage has criticized subsidies for the wind power industry but has led an effort across the state and region for electricity customers to subsidize new natural gas capacity, which could in the next few years serve natural gas plants already online.
The region recently has faced removal of power generation assets, including the closure of Vermont Yankee, which took 800 megawatts of generation off the grid on Dec. 29.
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