New England’s windiest state has big appeal for investors willing to jump over the regulatory hurdles, with Pittsburgh-based EverPower Wind Holdings Inc. developing four projects in Maine.
“We’ve been spending hundreds of thousands of dollars up to this point and are getting ready to spend millions in building and construction projects,” says Harry Benson, a Scarborough-based development director with EverPower Wind Holdings Inc. “We’re at a critical point.”
The Pittsburgh-based company, backed by London-based private equity firm Terra Firma Capital Partners Ltd., is developing four sites here – one at Bryant Mountain in Oxford County, two in undisclosed locations up north, and one Downeast. It operates facilities in California, New York, Pennsylvania and Illinois, and identified 15 potential sites in Maine before settling on four.
Like many of its peers, it’s encountered an unpredictable permitting process.
“We thought we understood the process in Maine, and then when we started charging forward with our projects, things keep changing,” he says. “Part of the issue in Maine is that they’ve been getting stricter.”
The firm is nevertheless sticking to its plans to develop 760 megawatts (MW) of wind power here, adding to its current operating capacity of around 1,000 MW. It’s also looking to set up a Portland office once things progress. “We still feel that the majority of our projects are viable and should be built,” Benson says. “Being an optimist is part of being a developer.”
Paul Williamson, a Portland-based development manager with Apex Clean Energy, of Charlottesville, Va., has similar frustrations. “The biggest issue with permitting is that there’s a fair amount of subjectivity in the process. That makes it difficult for the developer.”
In Maine, Apex is developing Downeast Wind 1, a 90MW project, for which it plans to submit the permit application later this year, start building at the end of 2018 and wrap up in late 2019. It’s also looking at a second potential project.
“When we talk about support from the state government, we’re not looking for subsidies or financial support,” Williamson says. “We’re specifically looking for that ability to permit projects and solve problems in a constructive way rather than running against barriers we can’t overcome.”
The uncertainty looks set to continue after Gov. Paul LePage’s recent veto of a measure (LD 901), sustained by lawmakers, which would have eliminated state authorities’ discretion in determining the “visual scenic impact” of proposed wind projects.
The veto came four years after Norway’s Statoil ASA yanked a $120 million offshore project here, which LePage opposed, citing concerns of a $200 million burden on Mainers by way of increased electric costs. He said at the time that Statoil was ambiguous in its commitment to growing Maine’s economy.
Statoil is now developing offshore wind in New York after submitting a winning bid of $42.5 million last December, reopening old wounds and prompting fresh criticisms of a state “openly hostile” to renewables,” as Jeremy Payne, executive director of the Maine Renewable Energy Association, bluntly puts it. “The truth is that was ours,” he says. “We screwed it up.”
Maine, which got its first wind farm at Mars Hill over a decade ago, has 903 MW of installed wind capacity at 16 facilities, far outranking its regional peers. The figure includes Patriot Renewables LLC’s 23 MW Canton Wind facility in Oxford County, which is due to become operational in coming months.
Wind accounted for 14% of the state’s electricity production in 2016 and three-fifths of utility-scale wind power in New England, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Nationwide, Maine ranked No. 21 in the American Wind Energy Association’s latest quarterly report.
Maine has a prime opportunity to supply growing demand from southern New England, though success largely depends on better transmission connections, especially from northern Maine. With Maine companies shut out of last fall’s tristate clean-energy request for proposals from Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut, the pressure is now on to submit proposals to Massachusetts in another call by the end of July.
An expert in the renewable energy industry, David Wilby of Wilby Public Affairs LLC in Brunswick, said at the recent E2Tech conference in Portland that Massachusetts’ plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 25% below 1990 levels by 2020 will be “challenging,” but could present opportunities for Maine.
In Maine, the use of wind has yielded huge environmental benefits, including a decrease in 2016 carbon dioxide emissions by 143 metric tons, or the equivalent put out by 30,000 cars, according to the American Wind Energy Association. Wind power also uses next to no water.
Better technology and environmental gains have helped sway public opinion overwhelmingly in favor of wind as a safe, clean way to boost energy independence and protect the environment. Support is highest in areas with successfully operating wind farms.
“Proximity to the project actually increased support,” notes the MREA’s Payne. “People have started to understand that when they host these projects, they are likely to economically benefit.”
On a macro level, the wind industry supported up to 2,000 direct and indirect jobs in the state in 2016, attracted $1.8 billion in capital investment through 2016 and up to $5 million in annual lease payments.
Indirect jobs include consultants, public affairs firms and lawyers like Juliet Browne, a partner with Verrill Dana LLP in Portland who has advised several developers on permitting.
“For a period of time that was the lion’s share of my work,” she says. “It’s definitely slowed down.”
Jeffrey Thaler, a visiting professor at the University of Maine and assistant counsel to the university on environmental, energy and sustainability projects, attributes the slowing momentum to one main factor: “Right now in Maine, there are fewer onshore development projects underway, primarily due to concerns about how one can get projects approved and built when compared with other states.”
Maine has an aspirational goal of achieving 3,000 MW of wind capacity by 2020 and 8,000 MW by 2030, created by the Legislature during the Baldacci administration. Should it achieve those milestones, the state stands to gain up to $5 billion in new investments, more than $25 million a year in property tax payments, and $6 million-plus in direct payments to local landowners, the Natural Resources Council of Maine estimates.
Ocean of opportunities
The slow but steady stream of new projects is a drop in the bucket compared to the untapped offshore potential in the Gulf of Maine, which U.S. Sen. Angus King once called “the Saudi Arabia of wind.”
In Maine, offshore wind represents the state’s largest untapped natural resource, with more than 156 GW or 156,000 MW of potential waiting to be harnessed, according to the University of Maine. It notes that the Gulf of Maine boasts a higher quality offshore wind resource than most parts of the United States, and is also close to New England population centers with high electrical demand.
Three years after Statoil was spooked away, Maine’s offshore hopes rest with New England Aqua Ventus, a 12 MW floating turbine project led by UMaine with $10.7 million so far in federal funding. UMaine’s Thaler said the project is on track to be built by the end of 2019, though that could slip to 2020.
As the clock ticks towards those deadlines, UMaine researchers completed successful tests at an ocean simulator basin in Orono that can simulate a Category 5 hurricane, and will spend the next year working on final engineering and construction drawings, permit applications, and financing.
“The advantage of floating technology is that you can put it 20 miles offshore,” says Habib Dagher, the project’s principal investigator and executive director of UMaine’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center. “As you get farther from shore, the wind speed gets better, and the Gulf of Maine has the best resource of the East Coast.”