State utility regulators decided Wednesday to reconsider agreements with two companies planning to develop wind power projects in Maine, despite widespread criticism from industry officials who said doing so would be inappropriate and set a dangerous precedent.
The three-member Public Utilities Commission voted 2-1 in favor of reopening negotiations for the Weaver and Highland Wind projects after granting them initial approval in December.
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David Littell, the only commissioner appointed by former Democratic Gov. John Baldacci who is left on the panel, said there is no basis to reconsider the proposals.
But Commissioners Mark Vannoy and Carlie McLean, both appointed by Republican Gov. Paul LePage, argued that the estimated economic benefits of the long-term contracts may have changed due to changes in the energy market over the last two months. They said it's worth re-examining the proposals to ensure that ratepayers get the best deal possible.
Wind power advocates and LePage's political opponents have questioned whether the governor is seeking to derail the projects, pointing to a letter he sent commissioners in December asking them to consider proposals from other energy resources before entering into a contract.
But McLean, who was chief legal counsel to the governor before joining the commissioner this month, rejected the notion that politics are influencing her decision.
Neither "the media, nor the editorialists, nor the politicians, nor the governor have a say over how I case my vote," she said.
After signing off on the projects' terms and costs two months ago, the commission directed utility companies to enter into long-term contracts with Weaver Wind LLC, which is a subsidiary of Missouri-based SunEdison, and NextEra Energy Resources LLC, which is developing the Highland project and is based in Juno Beach, Florida. The contracts had not yet been finalized.
The companies have offered to sell their power at about 5 cents per kilowatt hour, which Littell said is expected to save ratepayers up to about $70 million over the lifetime of the contracts. But Vannoy said Wednesday it was unclear due to the volatility in the energy market that they would provide long-term benefits to consumers.
Vannoy was the only commissioner to vote against the contracts in December. He has since taken over as chairman, following the retirement of Thomas Welch, another LePage appointee.
LePage's administration has said the governor is interested in making sure the commission considers other options like hydropower and nuclear for long-term contracts to ensure that ratepayers get power at the lowest cost possible.
But Phil Bartlett, chairman of the Maine Democratic Party, said Wednesday the commission's decision was "clearly political." He called it the latest move in LePage's "ideological campaign against renewable energy."
LePage has sought to influence the commission before, successfully pushing to reopen the competitive bidding process for offshore wind projects last year after the panel had given initial approval for a contract to Norwegian company, Statoil. That caused Statoil to abandon its plans to build a $120 million wind facility off the coast of Maine.
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