Southern New England’s need for clean energy to meet ambitious clean energy goals set by each state is driving new wind power investments in Maine. But it’s also generating renewed grassroots opposition from Maine rural communities who don’t want to see dozens of 50-story wind turbines spinning on scenic hills and mountains.
A new development in that scenario is the looming risk of bankruptcy facing SunEdison, an international solar-and-wind-power developer that owns six wind farms in Maine worth more than $900 million. The company’s King Pine wind farm proposal in northern Maine figures prominently in the joint proposal submitted by Central Maine Power and Emera Maine to the New England Clean Energy RFP put forward by Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island last year to help them reach their individual clean energy mandates. But SunEdison also faces a staggering $7.9 billion debt and is preparing a Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing, according to the Wall Street Journal.
All of this comes at a time when all six New England states are grappling with clean energy mandates and demands to replace coal, oil and nuclear power as fuel for the region’s electricity generation, without increasing wholesale electricity costs that already are among the highest in the nation.
Demand for clean energy
The New England Clean Power RFP requires a minimum project size of 20 megawatts of renewable power to qualify – enough power for roughly 10,000 homes – and is based on the premise that the three southern New England states would have more buying power collectively than on their own.
It’s a complex procurement, pitting 24 proposals involving large-scale solar, wind, fuel cell and hydro projects against each other for a share of the long-term power contracts promised by the RFP. The selection of the winning projects is scheduled to take place between April 26 and July 26. Power purchase contracts and regulatory approvals would follow.
John Carroll, spokesman for AVANGRID, New Gloucester-based parent company of CMP, acknowledges the uncertainties about SunEdison’s finances are an unexpected complication for the utility’s joint Maine Renewable Energy Interconnect proposal with Emera Maine that was submitted in late January, two months before SunEdison’s troubles became public.
But Carroll flatly rejects any notion that SunEdison’s troubles could scuttle CMP and Emera Maine’s bid to be one of the winning projects when the New England Clean Energy RFP procurement awards are announced this summer.
“We don’t think it changes the merits of this proposal,” Carroll said. “We are continuing to work with SunEdison. We think there is tremendous value in the wind projects attached to our proposal.”
Carroll points out SunEdison’s 600-megawatt King Pine wind farm proposal represents less than half the power the utilities’ MREI proposal plans to deliver to the three southern New England states. The proposal also includes two Aroostook wind farms being developed by EDP Renewables North America LLC – the 400-megawatt Number Nine Wind Farm and 248-megawatt Horse Mountain Wind Farm – and is expected to send enough electricity to service 250,000 homes in southern New England.
Carroll also notes SunEdison’s 86-megawatt Somerset Wind proposal represents only 15% of the 550 megawatts of wind energy in CMP’s separate Clean Power Connection proposal that calls for a new 66-mile transmission line in western Maine extending from Johnson Mountain Township near Jackman to the main grid connection in Pittsfield. The rest of the wind energy would come from NextEra Energy, which plans to build more than 460 megawatts of wind power in western Maine: the proposed 216-megawatt Alder Stream wind farm in northern Franklin County and the 245-megawatt Moose Wind farm in Franklin and Somerset counties.
“Fundamentally, both [transmission] proposals are coming out of areas that are really rich with wind resources,” Carroll said. “We don’t think [SunEdison’s financial situation] is going to affect the viability of what we are proposing.”
Lots of competition
Patrick Woodcock, director of the Governor’s Energy Office and Maine’s representative to New England States Committee on Electricity (NESCOE), says the scope and number of wind farm proposals in Maine are very much tied to the demand for clean energy driven by the southern New England states’ renewable portfolio standards. But there’s also new demand being created by closures of the Vermont Yankee and Pilgrim Station nuclear power plants and older and dirtier coal- and oil-fired power plants in Massachusetts.
In a March 11 E2Tech forum on the New England Clean Energy RFP, Woodcock provided an overview.
“We’re looking at more than 2,000 megawatts of new wind power projects proposed in Maine,” he says, noting that wind developers with nine projects at various stages of development are seeking long-term contracts to supply power to utilities in southern New England. “A big project just a few years ago was 150 megawatts. King Pine is 600 megawatts. This is the Midwest-sized project coming to New England.”
The combined capacity of those proposed projects is three-and-a-half times the 613 megawatts of installed online capacity at 13 wind farms in Maine, according to the American Wind Energy Association’s latest report. Although that puts Maine at the top of the New England states for developing wind power, it falls far short of ambitious goals set by the state in 2008 to have 2,000 megawatts of onshore wind energy installed by 2015, and at least 3,000 megawatts of installed capacity by 2020.
The New England Clean Energy RFP could easily put Maine back on track toward achieving those goals.
“In a lot of ways, what we’re seeing is a convergence of the Renewable Portfolio Standards targets regionally with where the wind resources are in New England,” Woodcock says. “Maine certainly has a resource that southern New England wants.”
Grassroots opposition in Maine
As bullish as CMP and Emera Maine are about expanding wind power’s footprint in Maine, there’s also been strong grassroots opposition by groups such as Friends of Maine’s Mountains, Saving Maine and the Moosehead Region Futures Committee to wind power projects tied to their plans. At the heart of those opposing perspectives is a fundamental question about the tradeoffs involved in putting industrial-scale wind farms in some of Maine’s most scenic locations.
As Tom Welch, former chairman of the Maine Public Utilities Commission, told Mainebiz in a January 2015 interview: “Maine has a good wind resource. The question of whether Maine can and should exploit that wind resource depends a little bit on the question of what Maine should be selling to the rest of the world? If you are selling pristine landscapes, you need to think about where you want to put those wind turbines.”
Chris O’Neil is policy director of Friends of Maine’s Mountains, a nonprofit created in 2009 that describes itself as “the leading opponent of senseless industrial wind projects that destroy our state’s scenic assets, especially if those projects increase the light bills for working Mainers.” He sees the New England Clean Energy RFP as a bid by southern New England to “turn Maine into their wind plantation.”
“If these wind projects are the ‘heist’ then the transmission project is the ‘getaway car,'” he says.
O’Neil says his group has helped 36 communities in Maine’s unorganized townships and plantations opt out of the state’s Expedited Wind Permitting Area, an option the Legislature created in 2015 that gives residents a greater voice in what would otherwise be a streamlined permitting process.
He characterizes wind power “as an extravagant waste of money” that isn’t worth “ruining the hills and mountains” of Maine. The reason, he argues, is that Maine’s wind resource is both intermittent and unpredictable, making it a poor substitute for the 3,000 megawatts of baseload power being lost with the closures of Vermont Yankee, Pilgrim Station and coal- and oil-fired power plants like Brayton Point in Somerset, Mass., and Salem Harbor.
“You can’t replace all that power with 2,000 or 3,000 wind turbines, because at best their actual output is one-third of their nameplate capacity,” O’Neill says. “The redundancy and its resulting cost-shifting is unsustainable.”
Exporting a resource
Proponents of the state’s wind energy include Maine construction contractors such as Reed & Reed and Cianbro, as well as businesses in the supply chain that benefited from $532.5 million in wind power investment from 2006-14, according to a December 2014 report economist Charles S. Colgan. The economist estimates there’s an additional $745.1 million in construction planned for the next few years, excluding the costs of turbines, blades and electrical gear purchased outside of the state.
Colgan’s nine-page report for the Maine Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Southern Maine states that since 2014 wind energy has accounted for 6% of all construction jobs in Maine. The vast majority of the yearly average of 1,560 jobs created or supported since 2006, he writes, are in rural areas of western, eastern and northern Maine.
Alan Richardson, Emera Maine president and chief operating officer, sees the Maine Renewable Energy Interconnect proposal as a “regional solution” to “a big regional challenge.”
“None of this would be possible if the southern New England states hadn’t gotten together and decided to act together to procure a large amount of renewable energy,” he says. “If you do it piecemeal, you get a small wind farm connecting to a small transmission line and another small wind farm connecting to another small transmission line. It’s not the most efficient way to do it. So it’s very smart, I think, for the region to do it this way.”
Among MREI’s benefits outlined by Richardson:
• $250 million average annual increase in New England’s GDP
• $70 million in wholesale electricity cost savings
• 3,850 jobs between 2015-20
• Hundreds of millions of dollars in construction-related spending
• Significant increase to local tax base in Maine
• “Energy security and price stability” regionwide, with enough incremental clean energy to power 250,000 homes.
“We are very confident that when the southern states evaluate all these proposals the evaluators are going to give us high scores on these metrics,” Richardson says.
Thorn Dickinson, vice president of business development for AVANGRID Networks, the new parent company of CMP created by the merger of Iberdrola USA and UIL Holdings Corp., says CMP’s separate Clean Power Connection proposal eliminates the transmission bottleneck that now exists in western Maine.
“Currently, the transmission system in western Maine is completely tapped out,” he says, noting that CMP already has all the rights-of-way needed to develop the additional transmission line. “Here we have an opportunity to aggregate that and provide a solution that results in an efficient way of gathering wind from a transmission perspective while enabling wind developers to compete with other renewable energy sources in New England.”
Dickinson says for both projects “the direct benefit to the southern New England states exceeds the cost of the transmission plus the wind. In addition, there’s a substantial benefit associated with the reduction in carbon emissions due to carbon-free generation.”
Although the electricity generated by the western Maine wind farms would be delivered to southern New England, Dickinson says it will benefit Maine residents by lowering the region’s wholesale retail prices for electricity. Like the MREI proposal with Emera Maine, CMP’s separate transmission proposal will have the capacity to handle additional renewable power projects, including grid-scale solar that might be proposed in the future.
“We’ll have a stronger system in Maine that leads to flexibility for whatever future challenges we have as a state,” he says.
O’Neil counters: “Utilities are thrilled to build new transmission and get their guaranteed 12% return on equity. When you add it all up, building wind is essentially an extravagant waste of money, so ruining the hills and mountains isn’t worth it.”
Richardson takes issue with the notion that Maine is being exploited by the southern New England states.
“I would point out that the economy of Aroostook County depends heavily on exporting,” he says. “They make money from potatoes, for example, not by eating all the potatoes they grow up there but by exporting them. They make money on specialized lumber and other forest products like wallboard. So, I think people are not opposed to exporting our power, especially if it generates more economic activity, growth and jobs.
“It really comes down to if you are OK with having wind power, then it’s a no-brainer. If you are just opposed to wind power, there’s nothing I can say to change that.”
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