AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine energy industry officials and lawmakers applauded on Wednesday the potential environmental and economic benefits of a 12-megawatt offshore wind project that could be built off the state's coast, but a lot remains to be settled before construction of the two-turbine project is ensured.
In documents released Wednesday, officials estimated that the project proposed by the University of Maine and a host of partner companies could bring at least 340 full and part-time jobs during the three years of planning and construction and create $120 million in investments, half of which would be paid to Maine-based entities. But at 23 cents per kilowatt hour — significantly higher than current market rates — it will cost utility customers nearly $9 more a year on their bills.
Renewable energy advocates and lawmakers, who've long believed Maine's wind resources and location can make it an international leader in offshore wind development and technology, said the significant environmental and economic impacts of the wind project are clear.
"There are very few places where we can compete and actually be a world leader from the start," said Democratic Senate President Justin Alfond of Portland.
He said that created an opportunity, and it's up to the public, the Public Utilities Commission and the Department of Energy to take advantage of it.
"I hope that we seize it," he added.
State regulators are expected to decide within the next month whether to approve the proposed terms of the project and begin negotiating a contract with the Maine Aqua Ventus, the umbrella company of the university and its partners. UMaine officials and Gov. Paul LePage's office have said that agreement will help it win a $50 million energy grant in the spring, a critical funding piece for the project.
Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud said in a statement Wednesday that the Maine Aqua Ventus project is a chance to "repair the damage our state's reputation has suffered on offshore and renewable energy development."
Environmental groups criticized the Republican governor administration's handling of Norwegian company Statoil, which reached a tentative agreement with the state in January to put four wind turbines 12 miles off the coast of Maine. Maneuvering by the administration to reopen the bidding process to allow the university to submit a bid prompted Statoil to remove its project for consideration in October.
LePage said Statoil's project was a bad deal for Maine that would push high costs onto utility customers and that the state should support its flagship university rather than an out-of-country oil company. But some questioned whether LePage was hoping to scuttle offshore wind development in Maine altogether.
LePage's top energy official, Patrick Woodcock, said Wednesday that the administration is encouraged that the university's proposal appears to be at a lower cost for utility customers than Statoil's and spells out more concrete and specific economic benefits to the state. But he said the administration will continue to examine the proposal before making further comments.
"Any time that you start asking for ratepayers to support a project, you want to see clear economic benefits from that investment and that is the process that we are undergoing as an administration," he said.
Renewable energy industry officials say it's difficult to compare the two projects when it comes to the impact on utility customers and economic benefits because they differ significantly in such areas as the number of turbines and the material that would be used for construction. Customers shouldn't also compare the proposed rates under the university project to what they pay now because research and development always comes at a higher cost, said Paul Williamson, director of the Maine Ocean and Wind Industry Initiative.
Jeremy Payne, executive director of the Maine Renewable Energy Association, said that based on whether LePage's administration supports the university's project, Maine residents will be able to see if it meant what it said regarding the need for a project that made a bigger commitment to Maine's economy and Maine jobs.
"Now we'll find out if that is really the issue at hand," he said.
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