Maine Public Advocate Reverses Opposition to Joint Wind Venture
One of the lead opponents of a wind energy joint venture has reversed its opposition to the project, and says it's OK to go ahead under certain conditions. Maine's Office of the Public Advocate - or OPA - issued a brief on Friday regarding plans by Canadian utility Emera - owner of the companies formerly known as Bangor Hydro and Maine Public Service Company - to enter into a joint venture with Boston-based First Wind. Tom Porter has more.
The deal - which was approved by the regulators at the Maine Public Utilities Commission two years ago - has seen Emera invest more than $300 million in the venture so far, and calls for a total of about $1 billion to be pumped in over the course of a decade. That would secure Emera a 49 percent share in the business, called JV Holdco.
A number of parties, including the OPA, opposed the venture over concerns it could affect the competitive market established by law 14 years ago. The aim is to protect the consumer by keeping power distributors, like Emera, separate from power generators, like First Wind.
"One of the primary concerns our office had was the incentive for Emera Maine to construct transmission that would help First Wind projects," says Maine Public Advocate Tim Schneider.
Schneider says the concern was that rate-payers would end up shouldering the costs of transmission upgrades as the combined utility eases the burden on itself by passing on the cost to consumers.
This worry was shared by the Maine Supreme Court, which a couple of months ago ruled that the PUC was wrong in approving the deal and told the commission to take another look at it.
Meanwhile, after two years of studying the issue, the public advocate no longer believes the potential for favoritism exists in the Emera-First Wind case.
"When we looked at this we really focused on what were the rate-payer harm, so there were a lot of potential things that we could be concerned about," Schneider says, "but when we looked at the transactions itself - How is this going to have a negative impact on rate-payers? - and we looked at the structure of the deal and the existing restrictions in place, including existing federal law and restrictions imposed by the PUC, we thought that those mitigated any risk of favoritism."
The OPA also laid out a list of six conditions for the joint venture to go ahead, which are basically meant to establish more independent oversight of certain transmission projects.
Wind power opponents, however, are not happy with the public advocate's new position. Chris O'Neil, from the anti-wind energy group Friends of Maine's Mountains, says the OPA is going beyond its purview.
"The public advocate is a watchdog," O'Neil says. "A watchdog's role is to bark, and even bite, when their territory is threatened. It's not the watchdog's role to be a facilitator of a deal broker."
Despite Schneider's assurances that consumers are unlikely to be negatively impacted, O'Neil says the joint venture poses a grave threat to rate-payers in Maine "who will be forced to pay for billions of dollars worth of wind infrastructure and transmission - for decades. That is really all we need to be hearing out of the public advocate at this point. We don't need the public advocate to be trying to facilitate a deal."
The OPA, meanwhile, says it's important that the PUC developed a clear standard in dealing with these types of business partnerships, as there are a number of similar ventures that could be affected, including the offshore wind project Maine Aqua Ventus, which also connects generators with distributors.
The PUC is expected to make its deliberation on the Emera-First Wind joint venture next month. Then it will be up to the Maine Supreme Court to decide if this is acceptable.
In an emailed statement, First Wind spokesman John LaMontagne says the company remains committed to the joint venture.
In an emailed statement First Wind spokesman John LaMontagne says the company remains committed to the joint venture.
Emera spokeswoman Dina Bartolacci Seely told MPBN the company is confident in the PUC process and hopeful of a positive outcome.