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Bill aims to encourage development of offshore wind in Maine

This Friday, Sept. 20, 2013 file photo shows the country's first floating wind turbine works off the coast of Castine, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
This Friday, Sept. 20, 2013 file photo shows the country's first floating wind turbine works off the coast of Castine, Maine.

The chairman of the Legislature's energy committee is proposing a bill that aims to jumpstart the offshore wind industry in Maine.

But while environmental and labor groups are already on board, some Republican lawmakers say they'll need to see the details to ensure any offshore wind contracts would actually reduce costs for ratepayers.

Last week, a University of Maine researche project to deploy up to a dozen floating wind turbines in the Gulf of Maine took another step forward when regulators announced they were continuing their review of the proposal. At the same time, the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is also evaluating whether there is interest in much larger commercial leases for wind power projects in the Gulf of Maine – projects that state officials hope will utilize the deepwater, floating technology being developed by UMaine’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center.

With those developments as a backdrop, Sen. Mark Lawrence, D-Eliot, is introducing legislation to help guide development of offshore wind in Maine. Lawrence said tapping into the Gulf of Maine's steady wind resources will insulate against future electricity price spikes caused by the fact that more than half of New England’s power comes from burning natural gas.

"This gets us away from reliance on fossil fuels as a source of producing electricity,” Lawrence, who co-chairs the Legislature’s Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee. “Once we do that, we no longer have to deal with the fluctuations in oil prices, in what's happening in Ukraine, what's happening in Russia. We now have as a fuel source the wind, the sun and we don't pay anything for those."

The text of Lawrence’s bill is still being finalized and was not available on Tuesday. But according to an outline distributed at a press conference, the bill sets a goal of procuring 2,800 megawatts of electricity -- enough to power nearly 1 million homes -- by 2035. Those procurements by the Maine Public Utilities Commission could begin in just two years, which Lawrence acknowledged is an ambitious goal but one he said is aimed at incentivizing potential developers. But he said the bill would provide the PUC with flexibility, including in determining whether a potential procurement contract would benefit ratepayers.

The bill would also require developers to meet high standards, Lawrence said, to minimize any impacts on wildlife, commercial fishermen and the environment. Offshore wind is intensely controversial among some fishermen, particularly lobstermen, who strongly oppose the prospect of hundreds of massive turbines anchored to the ocean floor.

But the proposal was endorsed Tuesday by Maine Audubon, the Natural Resources Council of Maine and labor union leaders with the Maine State Building and Construction Trades Council.

“If Maine doesn’t take the initiative to help steer offshore wind development off the Maine coast, someone else will,” said Sarah Haggerty, conservation biologist at Maine Audubon. “Passing this legislation is our best chance for Maine to benefit from offshore wind and to ensure it responsibly co-exists with wildlife in the Gulf of Maine.”

But Senate Republican Leader Trey Stewart of Presque Isle said he wants to see exactly how the Maine Public Utilities Commission determines whether contracts with potential offshore wind farms will benefit consumers. A former member of the Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee, Stewart said he had not seen the proposal but said he supports grid-scale renewable energy that’s done the right way “and not be picking winners and losers in a way that does not make sense.”

"I'd say I want to know what the rates are going to be and I'd want to know what they mean when they say ‘interests of ratepayers,’” Stewart said. “Because to us that's code for, 'We're going to find some other ways to play some gimmicks’ rather than look at the most important number, which is what's the kilowatt-hour rate? How is this going to impact your bill?"

Stewart and other Republicans said their top energy priority this legislative session will be finding ways to reduce Mainers' electricity bills. And part of that will be repealing or overhauling the current financial incentives that are encouraging the development of solar farms across the state and are also utilized by households who install rooftop solar systems. The Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee is expected to consider recommendations from a task force that looked at ways to restructure those incentives going forward to reduce the price tag of those incentives.