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Maine Utility Regulators Decide to Reconsider Two Wind Power Projects

AUGUSTA, Maine - The Maine Public Utilities Commission has decided to reconsider proposals for two wind power projects it had previously initially approved. The commissioners voted 2-1 in favor of reopening negotiations, based on energy costs that are now 20 percent below the rate that existed at the time of the first vote.

It could be back to the drawing board for NextEra and First Wind, two wind power projects that were projected to provide savings to ratepayers of between $32 million and $73 million from contracts spanning 20 years. NextEra's Highland Wind was proposed for Somerset County and First Wind’s Weaver Wind project was envisioned for Hancock County.

The three-member commission gave initial approval to the projects in December, with then-commissioner Mark Vannoy dissenting. But since that vote, one commissioner has retired, Vannoy is now chairman and Carlisle McLean, Gov. Paul LePage's former chief legal counsel, has been appointed to the third seat on the PUC.

"Turning now to the singular question before the commission of whether to reconsider the orders directing utilities to enter into long-term contracts," said McLean. "I have found that the commission does have the authority to reconsider these orders at this time."

McLean emphasized that her conclusions were guided only by her knowledge of utility law.

Before the December vote, LePage sent a letter to the commission, expressing his desire to see the process for long-term energy contracts reopened. Vannoy, another LePage appointee, and Carlisle repeatedly stressed the importance of getting the best deal for ratepayers, noting that since the wind companies received approval, energy prices have declined 20 percent.

"While I know there is volatility in the market and long-term forecasts are not based simply on today's prices, a forecast that is so dramatically different on the first real data point that we can examine, gives me reason for pause," Vannoy said. "If we can be so dramatically off in the near term, how can we, with any confidence, say that the current terms offer a significant discount off prevailing market prices?"

Vannoy also objected to Littell's suggestion that it was inappropriate for the PUC to reopen the RFP process under the order that was before the commission.

Commissioner David P. Littell wound up on the losing end of the vote, after he failed to convince his fellow commissioners that the wind power proposals could be perceived as less volatile than the price of fossil fuels, and that the PUC's reversal of the initial approval would create negative impressions around the country about Maine's regulatory authority.

Littell and Vannoy disagreed on the procedural implications of the PUC vote. Vannoy also objected to Littell's suggestion that it was inappropriate for the PUC to reopen the RFP process under the order that authorized it in the first place. "I think you're twisting the process that is in front of us," Vannoy said.

The RFP process for long-term energy contracts will be reviewed further by the PUC at a future meeting.