Maine wind industry alarmed as utility regulators consider rethinking approved projects

Energy Associated Press

Maine's reshaped Public Utilities Commission wants to reconsider two proposed wind projects it approved two months ago, a move critics say would damage the integrity of the regulatory process and scare off future renewable-energy investors.

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The commission will decide on Wednesday if it should reassess whether to grant contracts to two companies hoping to develop wind projects in Hancock and Somerset counties. The three-member panel granted initial approval to the Weaver and Highland Wind projects in December.

The commission says it may be prudent to re-examine the proposals because of changes in the energy market. Wind energy supporters counter that reopening the negotiation process is unfair and possibly an attempt to kill the projects.

"We can't just undo it because someone doesn't like it for some reason," said Jeremy Payne, executive director of the Maine Renewable Energy Association. "It seems like there is political interference underway."

The panel voted 2-1 to approve the proposed projects' terms and costs and directed the state's utility companies to enter into long-term contracts with Weaver Wind LLC, which is a subsidiary of Boston-based First Wind, and NextEra Energy Resources LLC, which is behind the Highland project and is based in Juno Beach, Florida.

Chairman Tom Welch and Commissioner David Littell, who supported the projects, said they're a good deal for ratepayers at about 5 cents per kilowatt hour. Commissioner Mark Vannoy disagreed, saying he isn't "persuaded that the benefits to consumers will actually materialize."

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The makeup of the commission has changed since then.

Welch has retired, and Vannoy is chairman. Carlie McLean, former chief legal counsel to Republican Gov. Paul LePage, has replaced Welch.

The commissioners can't comment on pending matters, spokesman Harry Lanphear said. He acknowledged that it's unusual to reconsider an order, saying "it doesn't happen terribly often."

Payne said he believes LePage, who has long opposed wind power because of its high cost, is trying to interfere in the process. He pointed to a letter the governor sent the commission in December urging it to consider proposals from all energy resources, including nuclear and hydropower, before entering into a contract.

The director of the governor's energy office, Patrick Woodcock, dismissed the notion of interference by the governor. He said LePage wants to ensure that ratepayers get the best price.

Wind power advocates fear that reopening negotiations will derail the two proposals, like it did for Norwegian company Statoil in 2013. Following maneuvering by LePage's administration, Statoil pulled its plans to build a $120 million wind project off the coast of Maine.

The governor had said publicly that he wanted to give the University of Maine a chance to compete. But documents obtained by The Associated Press through a Freedom of Access Act request showed his administration had been working behind the scenes to void Statoil's project.

Officials from NextEra did not immediately return a request for comment. First Wind spokesman John Lamontagne said officials negotiated the agreement in good faith and expect the commission will honor those terms.

"We remain hopeful that the project can move forward," he said.

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