With no discussion, the Maine Public Utilities Commission on Tuesday unanimously denied a motion to reconsider the awards of disputed renewable-energy contracts.
In brief remarks, commission Chairman Philip Bartlett said the contracts were awarded fairly and legally. The two other commissioners agreed.
At issue was a dispute over Maine’s largest-ever procurement of renewable-power contracts, and whether they all would be able to be built on time and deliver the promised low rate and clean-energy benefits to Maine utility customers. The PUC awarded the contracts in September as part of the state’s far-reaching plan to address climate change.
The contracts stem from a law enacted last year that increased the amount of renewable power utilities must buy for their customers from 40 percent today to 80 percent in 2030, with a goal of 100 percent in 2050. In September, Gov. Janet Mills hailed the contracts as a historic step that would make Maine a national clean-energy leader, while creating jobs and expanding the economy.
Taken together, the winning projects are expected to spur $145 million in spending and create 450 jobs during construction.
More than 70 renewable-energy developers from across the country presented proposals to the PUC, which drew up a short list. The agency granted the awards after an eight-month evaluation process. In the end, 17 projects were selected, most of them solar. Wind, biomass and hydroelectric bidders each won one project.
But soon after the September awards, the first-round contracts came under fire from two dissatisfied bidders that were denied contracts.
The developers questioned whether the selection process was flawed, whether customers will get the lowest possible rates and whether some of the winning projects could be delayed or never built.
Boston-based Longroad Energy asked the PUC to confirm that the selected projects have the wherewithal to proceed, and to require winners to set aside funds, presumably to be paid to the state, if they fail to achieve commercial operation. It also questioned the award of a long-term contract to the Three Rivers Solar project in Hancock County, which Longroad says already has an existing contract.
“The omission of any assessment of project viability casts in doubt whether Maine ratepayers and the state’s economy will actually realize the benefits promised by at least some of the winning bidders and touted as part of the announcement of the winners, as the benefits will only be realized if the projects are actually completed, and completed on time,” Longroad said in its request.
Longroad is a major renewable-energy developer that, through former companies, developed most of Maine’s large-scale wind power projects. It had hoped to win a first-round contract for a $190 million solar project in the Benton area called Three Corners Solar.
Following the PUC’s decision, an executive with Longroad said the company supports state policy to encourage the development of cost-competitive renewable energy projects through long-term contracts.
“The issues we raised are important in order to ensure that these competitive solicitation programs are successful for the benefit of the Maine ratepayer and the economy,” said Matt Kearns, chief development officer.
The second developer, Clearway Renew LLC, challenged how the PUC scored the projects. It maintained that its entry, called County Wind, had a superior price and climate impact and should have won a contract. Clearway also has filed a broad Freedom of Access Act request in an effort to see confidential pricing information and learn how projects were scored, among other things.
Clearway wants to build what would be New England’s largest wind project, which would have a value of roughly $1 billion. Rated at 400 megawatts of capacity, it would be located on commercial forestland around Sherman, in southern Aroostook County.
Following the decision, the developer of the Three River Solar project, Swift Current Energy, issued a statement:
“The Three Rivers Solar Project will benefit Mainers by providing a long-term economic boost, as well generating low-cost, pollution-free energy for decades to come,” said Dave Fowler, senior director of development at Swift Current.
“We’re pleased with the commission’s unanimous decision today and look forward to working with state leadership and our project stakeholders to develop, construct and operate the Three Rivers Solar Project safely and responsibly, bringing Maine closer to meeting its clean energy goals.”
The request for reconsideration, as it is called, has gained the support of the state Office of Public Advocate, which represents consumers in utility matters.
In written comments, the public advocate’s office said it supports the PUC’s effort to get the best price through a competitive bid process, but was concerned that some projects might lack the financial viability to be built.
Following Tuesday’s decision, Barry Hobbins, the Public Advocate, said he was disappointed and will asked that the PUC give more weight to financial viability in future awards.
A second round of bids is expected to be submitted for additional contracts in January. Longroad said it would review the request for proposals when the PUC issues one.
“There are going to be many more rounds of these (bid requests) in the future,” Hobbins said. “It’s a new law, and we want to make sure the blueprint is the right one. We don’t want projects in the queue that can’t be built.”
The dispute has caused a rift in Maine’s growing clean-energy industry, which has this year announced a string of multimillion-dollar projects to help meet Maine’s aggressive goal of reducing emissions linked to climate change by 80 percent by 2050.
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