Wind power developers say they are holding off on billions of dollars in investments in new Maine wind farms until they see whether the next governor will be a friend or foe of renewable energy.
With one Democrat and two liberal independents among the four candidates in the race, the question may come down to whether Republican Shawn Moody wins the election and maintains the anti-wind stance of Gov. Paul LePage.
Now in the final months of his second term, the Republican governor has erected barriers in the path of wind development that have deterred new investments and created a climate of uncertainty.
“No one is asking for new rules, or even a cheerleader,” said Jeremy Payne, executive director of the Maine Renewable Energy Association. “They just want a governor who gives them a fair shake, as you would any other industry that wants to spend billions of dollars in your state.”
He said the association’s members are considering projects that represent $3 billion to $5 billion worth of investment, but are waiting to see what happens in November. These members include national and international companies such as NextEra Energy, Longroad Energy Partners and EDP Renewables.
Payne’s comments followed a panel discussion last Tuesday at the American Wind Energy Association’s Northeast conference, held in South Portland. The panel included some of Maine’s top political analysts, who offered their opinions on how wind energy has become swept up in partisan politics and whether that will change after LePage leaves office in January. A strident critic, LePage last winter ordered a moratorium on wind development in most of the state. He more recently created a commission to review – behind closed doors – the impact of wind farms on tourism. The moratorium is being challenged in court, and media outlets are seeking the agenda and member names of the study group.
No new wind farms have started up in Maine since 2016 and no new applications are pending. Politics is just one reason why. Developers must secure power purchase agreements, typically with utilities in southern New England. They also need firm transmission connections to the electric grid. Both are presenting challenges today.
But Matt Kearns, chief development officer at Longroad Energy, said November’s election will matter because political leadership helps set the tone for investment.
“Just like with lobsters, blueberries and timber, we can serve the market,” he said. “We can, under the right political leadership.”
Longroad Energy is an example of overseas investment looking to Maine. It’s largely financed by an Australian energy company and a sovereign wealth fund that helps underwrite pension payments in New Zealand. Kearns said the company wants to file an application before year’s end for a 22-turbine project in the Hancock County town of Eastbrook, called Weaver Wind. The project is valued at $140 million.
“The timing isn’t entirely coincidental,” Kearns said. “We need to know the lay of the land before we make that kind of decision.”
‘THE MAINE BRAND’
With 923 megawatts of installed capacity spread over 16 commercial projects, Maine already produces at least four times more wind power than any other state in New England. Last year, wind accounted for 20 percent of the power generated in Maine, according to new data from the federal Energy Information Administration.
Most of the large wind farms in Maine were built to satisfy clean-energy policies in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island. They were developed in Maine because the state has miles of remote ridgelines where winds are steady, and a predictable permitting process at the Department of Environmental Protection and Land Use Planning Commission.
And while resistance persists from some residents and citizen groups that oppose the visual and audible impacts of large wind turbines on forested ridgelines, opposition in rural Maine has proved to be less of an obstacle than developers might encounter in more populated parts of New England.
But opponents were buoyed by LePage’s stance and hope to influence the next governor. One group, Friends of Maine’s Mountains, said it’s urging candidates to do a “sober analysis” of wind energy’s negative impacts, versus its benefits.
“After 10 years of gold rush-like wind development, Mainers are realizing it was a policy mistake,” said Chris O’Neil, a spokesman for the group. “It’s wrong for Maine, and we can’t afford to further damage the Maine brand.”
PANEL OFFERS INSIGHT
Against this backdrop, Tuesday’s panel discussion provided some insight into the role of Maine’s next governor in this ongoing debate.
Moderated by Payne, the panel was made up of Hans Kaiser, a principal at Moore Information, a Washington, D.C., opinion research group that has worked extensively in Maine; Lance Dutson, a Republican political and campaign strategist; David Farmer, a Democratic campaign strategist and former deputy chief of staff for Gov. John Baldacci; and Ben Gilman, senior government relations attorney at the Maine State Chamber of Commerce.
Farmer recounted how a special task force set up by Baldacci led to Maine’s 2008 Wind Energy Act, which set ambitious goals for wind development and sped up permits in certain areas of the state. Energy prices were high then, a deep recession looming. But any consensus around the benefits of wind power has faded, he said, replaced by a sharp ideological divide.
That divide, Dutson said, has widened into a “cultural and tribal schism” that defies traditional Republican values. Cutting red tape and setting up zones favorable to industry should be embraced by Republicans as a model for attracting other businesses, he said.
In the current partisan divide, Republicans tend to be against wind power, while Democrats are for it. But it’s not that simple when looking to who might be elected Maine’s next governor, Kaiser said.
Democrats, he said, are more likely to support a Republican who favors wind power, but not the other way around. He cited Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, a Republican governor bringing investment to his state by supporting offshore wind energy, in part by working across party lines.
That led Gilman to make this observation: In his view, the two independent candidates in the race – Alan Caron and Terry Hayes – are essentially Democrats. Janet Mills is a Democrat. So Shawn Moody, the Republican, is really running against three Democrats.
To the extent that wind energy matters in the race, Gilman said, Moody has a choice: “Does he want to be Charlie Baker, or does he want to be our current governor?”
Both Gilman and Dutson said they expect Moody to be Maine’s next governor. Farmer said he thinks Mills will win.
Whoever wins, Payne said, that person will need to repair Maine’s reputation, if it wants to welcome investment from the renewable energy industry. LePage, Payne noted, boasted in 2011 about erecting a sign near Maine’s southern border on Interstate 95, proclaiming the state “open for business.” But that’s hasn’t been true for clean energy, he said.
Picking up on that theme, Farmer asked the audience at the wind conference – many of them industry professionals from outside Maine – if they had heard of Maine’s governor.
Many hands went up.
Then Farmer asked if anything they heard was good.
It was hard to see any hands raised.
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