SOUTH PORTLAND – Land-based wind turbines now generate more than 6 percent of the nation’s electricity and larger, more-efficient equipment that drastically cuts costs will continue to fuel expansion after a key federal tax credit expires next year, according to data presented Tuesday at the American Wind Energy Association’s Northeast regional conference.
But growth in the Northeast is more nuanced.
New land-based wind development in the region has slowed, challenged in part by uncertainty over transmission line connections and competition between state clean-energy mandates. The real action is happening offshore, where Northeast states are cutting deals for giant wind farms.
In Maine, specifically, new wind development has largely stalled, held back in part by political opposition and technical challenges.
These contrasting snapshots form a broad outline of wind energy in the region today, as industry leaders and others gather in Maine for a two-day conference to explore the future of the power sector in the Northeast.
Nationally, wind projects received a record number of power purchase agreements in the first quarter of 2018, according to Celeste Wanner, a research analyst with the wind association. Beyond utility purchases, corporations are becoming major buyers of wind energy, led by AT&T, Google, Apple and others.
Technology improvements have led to larger turbines on taller towers, Wanner said, allowing wind farms to produce more energy and boost their average capacity factors – the amount of time they’re actually generating power – to between 40 and 50 percent. These and other design changes have decreased costs by two-thirds in the past eight years, she said. That makes wind competitive on price with natural gas power plants, Wanner said, and able to survive after the phased-down federal Product Tax Credit expires in 2019.
Closer to home, the industry’s standing calls for “neither unbridled enthusiasm nor unmitigated gloom,” in the view of David Wilby, a Maine-based consultant.
Wilby said 1,700 turbines have been erected in the Northeast over the past decade, representing an investment of $6.7 billion. Much of it happened through state procurement processes, in which utilities are mandated to buy certain amounts of clean energy. Wilby and David Littell, an energy consultant and former Maine Public Utilities Commission member, discussed the pros and cons of state officials making these decisions in New England’s competitive electrical market, in which ratepayers bear billions of dollars of costs.
A new test for these state procurements is taking place in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island, which have required their utilities to buy huge amounts of power from offshore wind farms. They are promising prices lower than most people in the industry could have imagined even a few years ago.
“They’ve got a big plane off the ground,” Wilby said. “Can they land that big plane? I’m confident it’s going to happen. But I wouldn’t minimize the challenge.”
Maine’s prior ambitions to be a leader in ocean energy have faded during the last seven years, largely due to opposition to wind power from Gov. Paul LePage.
LePage and his administration took actions that forced the Norwegian energy company Statoil to leave the state in 2013 and cancel plans to build a pilot floating wind farm. Earlier this month, the three members of the PUC appointed by the governor voted to reopen the terms of a previously negotiated power contract to test a patented technology for deep-water floating wind farms from Maine Aqua Ventus, a University of Maine-led project. That decision will further delay the effort, which already is years behind schedule.
Despite this, Maine remains New England’s top wind producer. On land, developers have erected 16 commercial wind farms over the last decade with a combined capacity of roughly 900 megawatts. Together they generated 20 percent of the state’s net energy last year, according to new data from the federal Energy Information Administration.
On land, the 185-megawatt Bingham Wind project in western Maine, the largest wind farm in New England, began operating in 2016. But land-based wind has been in the doldrums since then. In northern and eastern Maine, a lack of new transmission capacity is keeping potential projects from connecting to the regional electric grid and attracting new clean-power contracts in southern New England.
At the same time, LePage has ratcheted up his opposition to wind power. In January, LePage announced a ban on new wind farms in most of the state, citing potential negative impacts on tourism.
He also set up an unidentified study commission to meet privately to make recommendations. These moves were cheered by citizen groups that oppose wind farms and their visual impact across rural Maine.
A bill by the governor related to the wind-farm moratorium failed this spring in the Legislature. Environmental advocates and the renewable energy industry have filed lawsuits to overturn the governor’s executive order.
LePage’s term as governor ends this winter. Clean-energy advocates now are trying to assess how wind-friendly the four major candidates vying to replace him might be, to gauge the political landscape after November’s election.
“Maine still offers a tremendous opportunity to meet the demand for clean energy,” said Jeremy Payne, executive director of the Maine Renewable Energy Association. “However, there are a number of roadblocks and obstacles. So the industry wants to see who’s the next governor and what will his or her Cabinet look like. No one is looking for a rubber stamp. They just want a reasonable review.”
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