After approving two wind power plans in December, Maine’s Public Utilities Commission could do an about face and reopen its request for proposals pending the outcome of a meeting and a vote next week.
Critics are concerned because the move comes on the heels of a letter from Gov. Paul LePage requesting that the request be expanded beyond wind power generation.
The letter is part of the PUC’S docket file on a request for proposals, or RFP, of long-term energy contracts. But you can’t see it. And there’s a simple reason for that, says PUC spokesman Harry Lanphear.
“It does exist, it is in a secured part of the docket, so I really can’t comment about it,” he says.
In December, the PUC voted 2-1 in favor of giving preliminary approval to RFPs offered by First Wind and NextEra Energy Resources. It was among the final votes taken by Commission Chairman Tom Welch, who has since retired. But before Welch voted in favor of the two wind proposals he and the other commissioners received that letter from LePage, a persistent critic of federally subsidized wind turbine projects.
Although the PUC would not release the letter, MPBN obtained a copy through a third party. In it, LePage attempted to persuade the commissioners to ignore language in the RFP law, which directs them to consider new renewable energy sources. LePage wrote, “I request that you expand your current request for proposals to include any clean resource, including existing hydropower and nuclear, and review whether these potential contracts could have benefits for the ratepayers in Maine and our broader economy.””
“I think someone needs to talk with the governor and make sure he’s very clear he’s there to govern, not to meddle, and unfortunately that’s what he’s doing at this point,” says Maine Sen. Dawn Hill, a Democrat and one of the members of the Legislature’s Energy Utilities and Technology Committee. She says she was surprised to learn this week that the PUC is apparently considering the governor’s request, noting that things have changed since December.
Welch has been replaced on the commission with LePage’s former chief legal counsel, Carlisle McLean. Now the PUC says it wants to hear from interested parties on whether recent dramatic energy price fluctuations warrant a reopening of the wind companies’ proposals.
Hill says LePage’s opposition to wind power is well documented, most recently with his insistence to allow the University of Maine to bid on $120 million wind power project the PUC initially greenlighted for Norwegian energy giant Statoil. The company subsequently withdrew its bid.
Hill says the PUC’s decision not to include LePage’s letter in its docket file is also concerning, since it contains no confidential information. The governor’s decision to interfere with a quasi-judicial commission, she says, sounds similar to the way the governor tried to involve himself in a recent decision by the Maine Human Rights Commission.
“My big concern here is: What does the governor think the PUC is? It’s the ‘PUC,’ Public Utilities Commission, set up to protect the ratepayers and operated in a quasi-judicial fashion,” Hill says. “I’m concerned that he’s reading it wrong. He’s seeing it as ‘PUCK’ – something he can push around with a broom and a stick. And I will not tolerate that.”
“I didn’t connect the two, necessarily,” says Tim Schneider, the state’s public advocate and a LePage appointee. He says he’s unaware of any link between the governor’s letter and the PUC decision to potentially revisit the wind power projects.
Schneider says the PUC commissioners seemed to be saying there’s a possibility that the pricing information they based their decisions on might simply be outdated. And he points out that the body could simply reaffirm its initial decision.
But Rep, Mark Dion, a Portland Democrat and the House chair of the Utilities Committee, says the PUC must be careful about the message it sends to consumers and the utilities industry if it decides to reverse a decision made less than three months ago.
“I think the PUC can acknowledge there may be a change of circumstance today but is it so significant that it would warrant the undoing in essence of their own final decision and I think they need to move cautiously,” Dion says.
“That’s what you’ve got to balance: Would it be more beneficial in some instances to reconsider or is there more value in maintaining this level of confidence that when the commission makes a decision that that is final?” says Patrick Woodcock, director of the governor’s energy office. He says LePage is interested in getting the best deal he can for Maine ratepayers.
Woodcock and other members of the administration say they will be listening in to the PUC’s deliberations when the commission meets on Wednesday.
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