Hywind Maine

Industry expert talks wind issues

Posted:  
Tuesday, November 20, 2012 - 9:30am
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There is a lot up in the air right now for wind energy production off the coast of Maine. Statoil, the Norwegian energy company that is considering a pilot floating wind park 12 miles offshore of Boothbay Harbor, has been mum about its plans since the Maine Public Utilities Commission (PUC) failed to approve its proposed power purchase agreement with Maine utilities in October.

Both Statoil and the entire wind industry are also waiting to see if Congress will extend the federal wind production tax credit set to expire December 31. Uncertainty associated with that decision is already hampering a struggling industry.

On the Maine front, Gov. Paul LePage has pushed for Maine to rescind its renewable portfolio standard, which sets benchmarks for the amount of electricity derived from renewable sources and thus sets incentives for renewable energy production. (Click here for current Maine RPS)

These recent wind downdrafts may be offset by November’s election results, which gave green-energy friendly Democrats control of Maine’s House and Senate and sent a new pro-wind industry senator, Angus King, to Washington.

Maine Wind Industry Initiative (MWII) Director Paul Williamson took some time out of his busy schedule last week to talk about these and other issues affecting wind energy development in Maine.

Maine wind industry

MWII (pronounced “emwee”) was created in 2008 when Maine companies recognized the benefits of banding together to promote Maine’s developing wind industry.

MWII connects Maine companies (which include construction, marine trade, manufacturing, environmental, legal, and technical experts) with business opportunities. It also represents Maine wind energy interests at national and international energy conferences and with government entities.

“Our end goal is making opportunities for local companies so we can create more jobs,” Williamson said.

Williamson said a recent MWII survey of 43 Maine companies reported $279 million in revenues generated by wind and ocean energy projects, 60 percent of which were from projects outside the state.

“Because we were out in front of this industry, Maine companies have developed expertise here that can now be exported elsewhere,” he said. Maine companies have gained global reputations and opportunities.

Statoil

Williamson believes the biggest benefits of Statoil’s pilot proposal would be the opportunity to gain industry expertise. “Statoil will rely on local expertise to solve problems. What we can get most out of this pilot is developing that specific expertise,” he said.

Williamson has worked directly with Statoil to identify deep water locations in Penobscot Bay to assemble wind turbines (final assembly would occur at sea), as well as specific supply chain contractors for the project. “We are doing whatever we can to support them,” he said.

Although Williamson is clear that he does not speak for Statoil, he said he believes they are working now on an energy contract that would be acceptable to the Maine PUC. “They still have firms here in Maine working on this project.

“They haven’t pulled the plug and that suggests it’s still moving forward,” Williamson said.

Emails and phone calls to Statoil last week have not been returned; their local consultants, including public relations expert Elizabeth Swain, were reluctant to offer any insights on Statoil’s plans. Tracey Moriarty, Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, said there had been no changes in Statoil’s federal lease application.

Investing in Maine’s energy future

Williamson thinks it is unlikely that Maine’s renewable portfolio standard will be rescinded as the governor would like. “Whether its wind or other renewables, that would be a short-sighted strategy to find energy resources outside of Maine rather than developing our own sources,” he said.

“One of the reasons Maine is uncompetitive is because this nation made huge investments in energy everywhere besides the Northeast 50-70 years ago. We need to make investments today for energy for a decade from now.

“If we don’t make those local investments, we will remain dependent on energy from outside of Maine,” Williamson said.

In considering Statoil’s proposal, some have suggested electricity produced by a large offshore wind project would be mostly transported out of Maine to support more energy-hungry states. That concept considers Maine’s current electricity consumption but ignores the need to transform our energy dependence on oil, Williamson said.

Last week, Sen. Olympia Snowe announced $34.9 million for Maine’s low income home energy assistance program (LIHEAP). The federal government spent $3.5 billion in LIHEAP funds last year, which was up 54 percent since 2008. Williamson recognizes the need to provide heating assistance for low income households, but questions this as a sole strategy.

“Eighty percent of Maine homes use oil for heating. Per capita we are the highest user of oil in the nation. Why every winter are we making massive subsidies for an antiquated fuel source, which is only going to get more expensive with time? How about if we help people make an investment to an alternative energy source,” he said.

“If we had an abundance of renewable energy, we could begin to transform our energy economy away from oil and fossil fuels simply with existing technology,” Williamson said.

Williamson said that wind energy developed here would have a predictable cost. Global energy markets for transportable fuels like oil and coal are being driven by Asia’s demand for energy he said. Williamson said once the infrastructure is built to transport natural gas, its price is also likely to rise. Wind is not affected, at least for now, by this global demand.

“You can’t export wind energy or hydro energy, if you develop that here it stays here and it stays here as as a stable marketplace for the lifetime of that project. The price for the energy is simply the price to recoup the investment to build that project,” he said.

Williamson said the wind industry has made significant progress and it is becoming a competitive energy source. But like other energy sources, the industry still needs the economic boost that the federal tax credit would provide. He hopes the tax credit will be extended and that the extension will be for longer than 1 year.

“A four to five year phase-out would allow for long-term investment. The killer right now is the uncertainty,” he said, “One of my fears is we (nation and state) can’t act fast enough to invest in renewable energy sources.

Sue Mello can be reached at 844-4629 or sumello@boothbayregister.com