AUGUSTA – The Mills administration and advocates for developing offshore wind power in Maine urged lawmakers Thursday to revive a floating turbine project that has been stalled with utility regulators for more than a year.
The bill would direct the Public Utilities Commission to approve a long-term contract between the University of Maine-led Aqua Ventus program and Central Maine Power. A PUC decision last June to reopen a previously negotiated contract was viewed by project supporters as yet another setback during the administration of Gov. Paul LePage for Maine to develop an energy sector with enormous economic and environmental potential.
“We were leading on this issue about 10 years ago,” said Hannah Pingree, a former House speaker who directs Gov. Janet Mills’ Office of Policy Management. “Obviously, we had an interim period where the state stopped that motion forward, so we are excited to work with this committee in moving forward.”
States in southern New England and the Mid-Atlantic are moving aggressively to build offshore wind farms in the shallower waters along their coastlines. But the strongest, most sustained winds occur farther offshore in deeper waters, with the Gulf of Maine offering some of the best conditions for offshore wind power.
Engineers at UMaine and its Aqua Ventus partners hope to place two turbines – built on floating platforms anchored to the bedrock – off Monhegan Island. The pilot project is viewed as a major test for floating turbine technology that supporters say could be built in Maine and exported around the globe.
The project received authorization for $87 million in federal funding. But last June, the PUC voted to reopen the long-term power contract amid questions about whether the project met the requirements of a 2009 law and projections that it would raise electric rates for customers.
On Thursday, project supporters asked lawmakers to support the bill, L.D. 994, directing the PUC to approve the long-term contract for the Aqua Ventus project.
Anthony Viselli, the lead engineer on Aqua Ventus, said working on the project allowed him to stay in his native Maine and has helped keep or recruit other professionals to Maine. The project has also allowed him to bring in $50 million in grants and create several spin-off companies.
“The Maine Aqua Ventus project … will put Maine on the map as a global leader in offshore renewable energy and potentially develop a whole new industry right here in the state,” Viselli told lawmakers as he displayed a miniature model of the platform and turbine. “It’s a very unique opportunity. This would be the first commercial-scale floating wind turbine in the Americas.”
Representatives for several construction and engineering companies – including Cianbro Corp., a project partner – also testified in support of the legislation affirming the Aqua Ventus project.
Barry Hobbins, who heads the Maine Public Advocate’s Office, called the PUC’s decision to reopen the contract “disappointing and shortsighted.” A former lawmaker, Hobbins sponsored the 2009 law that emerged from an Ocean Energy Task Force under Gov. John Baldacci that provided a strategy for tapping into offshore wind.
“It’s important and imperative that this Legislature strongly affirm its support for the important project by directing the PUC to approve this long-term contract between Aqua Ventus and CMP so that … this pilot project may move forward,” Hobbins said. “The process is nearly complete in this decade-long initiative to move towards commercialization.”
There is a sense among project backers that Maine lost ground in recent years on offshore wind energy.
In addition to last June’s PUC decision on Aqua Ventus, LePage prompted the PUC in 2013 to revisit a power purchase agreement with a Norwegian company that had proposed a $120 million floating turbine project off Boothbay Harbor. That company, Statoil, later negotiated a deal to build the world’s first floating wind farm off Scotland.
Several project opponents also were present Thursday.
Julie Eaton, a lobster boat captain who chairs the legislative panel of the Maine Lobstering Union, said her industry is facing unprecedented cuts in the fishing quota for popular bait fish as well as drastic cuts from the federal government in the amount of vertical rope they can use.
The latter restrictions are intended to protect whales, and particularly endangered North Atlantic right whales. Eaton expressed fears that any additional human-caused mortality to right whales – including entanglements in the moorings for offshore wind farms – could result in the closure of lobstering in federal waters. She also predicted floating wind turbines will create navigational hazards for boats and make areas of the ocean floor off-limits to lobster gear.
“Our membership is not opposed to renewable energy,” Eaton said. “We have testified in support of several solar bills this session. However, we stand in opposition to floating wind farms in our ocean.”
Travis Dow made the multiday trip to Augusta from Monhegan Island – which is now served by only one ferry per day – to testify against the bill despite not learning about the public hearing until Monday.
“Maine Aqua Ventus has been disingenuous since the start of this project and the lack of reasonable notice for L.D. 994 is another example of this,” said Dow, a part of the group Protect Monhegan.
Members of the Legislature’s Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee also heard testimony Thursday on another bill sought by interests who see a chance to change directions on renewable energy after eight years under LePage.
The Republican sparred with Maine’s land-based wind power industry, was blamed for driving away Statoil’s investment in offshore wind and blocked solar energy incentives that he said increased electricity rates.
Dozens of advocates for solar energy turned out for a hearing on a bill, L.D. 1711, that would direct the PUC to solicit bids for a long-term contract to supply up to 400 megawatts of electricity from solar energy projects. The bill, sponsored by Senate Minority Leader Dana Dow, R-Waldoboro, also seeks to encourage community solar farms as well as municipal-sponsored projects.
“For cities like Portland that have committed to aggressively reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to transition to 100 percent clean energy, existing solar policy presents a barrier to achieving our goals,” Troy Moon, sustainability coordinator for the city of Portland, said in testimony.
“(The bill) builds on the work legislators, solar industry professionals, municipalities, utilities, environmental groups and citizens have done over the past few years,” Moon said.