PORTLAND, Maine – If SunEdison goes bankrupt, the company and industry experts say it won’t mean much for the wind developer’s existing projects, but it raises questions about the fate of other wind farms SunEdison has in the works.
John Lamontagne, a spokesman for SunEdison, said the operating projects will continue to operate under long-term power purchase contracts, which he said means they can keep making local community benefit payments and pay taxes.
“For projects that are in construction but not operating, they have been financed and therefore will be completed,” Lamontagne said.
That includes the company’s Bingham project, which SunEdison sold in December along with its Oakfield wind farm to a group of investors organized as Terra Nova Renewable Partners.
Another company, TerraForm Power, holds most of the First Wind and SunEdison projects in Maine. That includes its Mars Hill, Stetson, Rollins and Bull Hill projects. Holding various wind and solar projects, TerraForm collects revenue from long-term power purchase agreements and distributes dividends to investors.
TerraForm has said it believes it will have sufficient cash to weather a SunEdison bankruptcy, and wind proponents and opponents alike expect existing turbines will go on producing power under current contracts.
Fate of new projects
The fate is less clear for other projects in its pipeline, such as the massive 600-megawatt King Pine project proposed for land in the Unorganized Territory northwest of Houlton on the border of Aroostook and Penobscot counties.
“I would still expect most if not all of their projects in the development pipeline to go forward but not under SunEdison,” Jeremy Payne, executive director of the Maine Renewable Energy Association, said.
SunEdison also has a project in the works in Hancock County. It has put that project into a bid to have southern New England states buy that power, transmitted on two proposed power lines, one built jointly by Central Maine Power Co. and Emera Maine and another by CMP alone.
Payne said he doesn’t think that a looming bankruptcy will affect the southern New England states’ assessment of those proposals, as another developer would likely take them over.
That aside, he said it’s unclear just how those states are evaluating proposals, saying the law enabling those states to buy the power “gives them the ability to make some judgment calls at certain points and not just on price. And so, my guess would be they’re going to have to make some tough decisions about the viability of these projects.”
SunEdison and the utilities did not respond to requests for comment about what impact a bankruptcy might have on that bidding process, for which officials in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut are expected to pick winners as early as this summer.
Chapter 11 or Chapter 7?
The biggest question awaiting an answer from SunEdison’s expected bankruptcy filing is whether it finds a willing financier to allow it to continue operating and reorganize under Chapter 11 of the federal bankruptcy code, or whether it will sell it all off under Chapter 7.
If restructuring, Payne said he expects that SunEdison would seek to shed some assets, including development rights.
“If they do go through a bankruptcy, it seems reasonable that they’ll have to turn some of their capital away from upcoming projects and to existing debts,” Payne said. “And some of those projects might be acquired by other companies.”
Lamontagne said he could not comment on the fate of projects in the company’s pipeline.
Chris O’Neil, policy director for the wind opposition group Friends of Maine Mountains, said his group is watching to see if a buyer such as the sister company of CMP, Iberdrola Renewables, would come in and buy rights to certain projects.
A purchase attempt by an entity affiliated with either CMP or Emera Maine could come amid some legal uncertainty, depending on the location of the project. State law generally prevents CMP or Emera from owning power generation assets within their respective service territories.
Whether a company affiliated with either utility can own power generation assets is still unclear, as lawmakers this session left the question up to regulators and the courts. That question is the subject of a legal challenge to a since unwound partnership between Emera Maine’s parent company, Emera, and First Wind. The case was argued before the Maine Supreme Judicial Court in early March and a decision is pending.
At the other end of a project’s life, O’Neil said he remains concerned about whether the money set aside to decommission projects is sufficient.
So is the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, which previously asked First Wind – which was later absorbed by SunEdison – to reassert its financial capacity to complete and decommission its projects after a court ruling throwing out the investment the wind developer received from Emera.
The decommissioning funds are secured by irrevocable letters of credit with a bank, according to David Madore, a spokesman for the DEP. The state has not yet had to draw on those decommissioning funds and Madore wrote in an email the department is concerned about a bankruptcy affecting its ability to draw on that fund.
O’Neil’s group last fall negotiated a deal with SunEdison to withdraw its opposition to the company’s Bingham project in exchange for $2.75 million that would go toward conservation efforts and other terms, including limiting its development footprint and increasing the amount set aside for decommissioning the 185-megawatt Bingham project.
O’Neil said he’s not concerned about the allocation of those conservation funds, which he said have been set aside in an escrow account for disbursement to various conservation projects through 2017.
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