AUGUSTA, Maine – Maine became the regional wind power leader under Democratic Gov. John Baldacci, but change is in the air as Gov. Paul LePage makes an aggressive push away from his predecessor's renewable energy policies.
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The outspoken Republican, who says wind power is too expensive, is looking to hydropower from Canada and natural gas to bring down electricity prices that are among the highest in the country.
While many of LePage's past energy efforts have fallen flat, he will have an opportunity to strengthen his influence this spring when he replaces the last remaining Democratic appointee to the agency that regulates the state's utilities.
But he faces resistance from the state's powerful environmental lobby, which believes LePage's tendency to favor only the cheapest forms of energy today could be costly in the long run.
"His energy policy in no way reflects the truth that we have to make a clear transition away from fossil fuels — including natural gas — toward a 100 percent clean energy economy," said Glen Brand, director of the Sierra Club Maine.
Baldacci created aggressive wind energy goals and streamlined the permitting process for projects to create construction jobs and help wean the state off fossil fuels. But LePage and other critics say those efforts haven't aided a state that's struggling to attract investment.
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The state currently generates about 500 megawatts of electricity from wind — or enough to power about 175,500 homes — well short of Baldacci's aim to have 2,000 megawatts by now.
Industry officials tout polls that show support for wind energy here remains high. But its development has been slowed by LePage, his critics say, and opposition from residents near wind sites who worry the structures will be noisy and unsightly.
The governor wants to move Maine instead toward a greater reliance on hydropower and is again pushing to modify the state's policies to facilitate the purchase of power from large-scale projects in Canada. His administration is also launching another bid to revamp the state's renewable targets to include the goal of lower cost to ratepayers.
"If these (wind) projects are going to come, I want them to benefit the people who are most affected by it," said Patrick Woodcock, director of the Governor's Energy Office.
A reshaped Public Utilities Commission could help LePage achieve his second-term energy efforts. Once Baldacci appointee David Littell is replaced in the coming weeks, all three regulators will be LePage appointees.
Critics have accused LePage of meddling in the commission's matters in an attempt to derail wind projects.
Regulators voted in February to reconsider their earlier decision to grant contracts to two wind projects after LePage had urged the panel to consider proposals from existing resources — like nuclear and hydropower — before approving the wind deals. The governor's appointees to the commission insist LePage didn't try to influence their decision.
The move followed LePage's successful push to get the PUC to reopen the bidding process for offshore wind projects in 2013 after it had already made a deal with Norwegian company, Statoil. That caused Statoil to withdraw its $120 million proposed project off Maine's coast.
Industry officials say LePage's opposition to wind could end up costing ratepayers. Regulators have estimated that those two onshore projects could save ratepayers as much as $70 million over the course of the 20- and 25-year contracts.
Whomever LePage appoints to the commission will consider a proposal to charge ratepayers $75 million a year to expand natural gas pipeline capacity in New England, which has been a top priority for the governor.
Natural gas is abundant in the Marcellus Shale region, but limited pipeline capacity in New England drives up prices for consumers here.
When the Democratic-controlled Legislature approved the bill in 2013 directing regulators to consider the natural gas expansion, supporters said the move could lower residents' energy costs by $200 million annually by relieving the bottleneck to the gas-fired power plants. But PUC officials have said that the benefits of pipeline proposals they're considering likely won't outweigh the costs.
Woodcock said that's why LePage wants the New England states to work together on a plan to subsidize and construct more pipelines, which they had been doing before former Democratic Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick stalled the plan last year.
Jack Cashman, who served on the PUC under Baldacci, agrees that more natural gas infrastructure is needed. But making Maine too reliant on the fossil fuel without promoting renewable development could leave consumers on the hook for higher costs in the future, he said.
"The idea that natural gas is going to be forever cheap because we have reserves in this country is a fallacy," Cashman said. "Why would you put all of your eggs in that basket?"
For LePage and many large businesses here, the answer is simple: Maine can't afford not to.
"Energy is a huge factor in business, and if it's cheaper for companies to do that outside New England, that could be a deal breaker," said Bob Dorko, president of the Industrial Energy Consumer Group, which represents mills and other industrial facilities in the state.
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