Maine Legislature’s energy docket set for full slate in 2014

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AUGUSTA — The cost of energy in Maine, its production and transmission, as well as whether the mix of renewable sources is balanced, will continue to be debated at the State House in 2014.

Lawmakers on the Legislature’s Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee have spent their past few meetings honing up as they prepare to tackle more than 20 bills — many dealing with renewable energy and more specifically, wind power — that were held over from 2013. The panel has to act on the bills by Jan. 24, 2014, to meet legislative deadlines.

“We’ve got a very aggressive schedule we have to meet,” said state Sen. John Cleveland, D-Auburn.

Cleveland, the Senate chairman of the committee, said he didn’t expect energy policy or the debate around it to be the headline-grabber it was in 2013, but he had little doubt the topic would be important.

Meetings set for Dec. 11 and Dec. 18 are designed to further prepare lawmakers as they gather information in advance of deliberations, public hearings and work sessions on the bills, Cleveland said.

He said the work is twofold: providing a general overview of the state’s renewable energy policies to the committee and honing specific bills.

“There are a lot of different pieces; it’s not as though it’s one piece of legislation,” Cleveland said. “We wanted to give the committee a good factual background about what is the current policy, how does it work, what are the goals of those policies and how do they relate to one another.”

Lowering energy costs for homeowners and businesses and ensuring the state gets the most it can from the power that’s generated here also remains a top priority for Republican Gov. Paul LePage.

Also still in the mix for LePage is policy reform that would lift a cap on the state’s renewable energy portfolio standard. Current law disallows hydropower facilities that generate more than 100 megawatts from being classified as renewables.

Lifting that cap could open the door to lower-cost electricity from Quebec, but it could also place in financial jeopardy in-state generation, including some that comes from co-generation facilities at Maine paper mills.

Patrick Woodcock, director of the governor’s Energy Office, said he was confident a productive dialogue with the Legislature would continue, but he anticipated only “incremental” movement on energy policy in 2014.

Woodcock said there’s little doubt that some of the political and philosophical “chasms” remain between Democrats and Republicans on energy policy. Still, he said, often-overlooked is how collaboratively LePage’s administration and Democrats in the Legislature have worked to reach compromise and solutions.

Woodcock said it’s important to keep in mind they are working on some of the “hardest policy questions that center around some of the most divisive issues” in state politics.

Lawmakers, if not in the truncated “short session” of 2014, will be dealing with energy issues for decades to come.

Determining what role Maine will play in providing renewable energy to the more prosperous and populous southern New England and who will ultimately pay to expand the power-line infrastructure needed to transport that energy south, also will be among those issues.

“We are really in an outlier position,” Woodcock said, noting that Maine produces more renewable energy than it consumes, while renewable energy policies in Massachusetts and Connecticut are driving the demand for development of new sources here.

“And at this point, the supply is not meeting the demand,” he said.

At the heart of the discussion should be the question of how the state gets the most benefit for Maine people out of the resources it has available. That includes refocusing the policy debate on reducing costs, diversifying production and maximizing benefits for ratepayers.

“If we took all the funding we could provide for our renewable policies and asked ourselves, ‘Are we spending it in the most effective way?’ — I think the  answer is no,” Woodcock told lawmakers on the Energy Committee last week.

He said LePage wants a state energy policy that ultimately “maximizes” the benefits for the people of Maine. Woodcock said the governor has voiced frustration over the state’s pace in achieving some of its goals, including the effort to improve efficiency and conservation.

LePage has said, “‘We are moving kind of like a turtle, rather than a hare,'” Woodcock told the committee last week.

Cleveland said he and other Democrats working on energy policy agree with LePage on several levels.

He said the committee’s second meeting in December would be a review of state policy on commercial-sized wind power projects and a review of the goals and policies established in the Wind Energy Act of 2008

Beyond lifting the 100-megawatt cap for hydropower, the LePage administration is interested in changing the 2008 law, especially around the issue of allowing more public input on proposed wind farm developments in the state’s unorganized territories, Woodcock said.

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New details on UMaine’s offshore project could be released by week’s end.

State energy regulators with the Maine Public Utilities Commission are on the verge of publicly releasing details of a proposal by Maine Aqua Ventus, a public-private consortium led by the University of Maine.

The consortium, which includes several Maine companies, including the Cianbro Corp., is applying for federal research and development funding through the U.S. Department of Energy.

It hopes to develop the first full-scale floating wind turbines in the U.S. off the coast of Maine’s Monhegan Island. The proposal features two 6-megawatt turbines about 2½ miles offshore.

The project is the next step in the development of the state’s offshore wind capabilities, which recently led to a 1:8-scale model of VolturnUS being deployed in the water in Castine Harbor.

The Maine PUC hopes to release a draft term sheet that would outline a power-purchase agreement to show what Maine ratepayers will pay for power from the project if it moves forward, said Harry Lamphear, a spokesman for the PUC.

A valid power-purchase agreement with state regulators is one requirement for the federal grant.

The project is among six offshore wind proposals around the country that are competing for three $46.6 million federal grants, said Jeff Thaler, a lawyer working on the project for the consortium.

Earlier this month, Maine Aqua Ventus released additional details about the project, but key factors such as cost, projected job creation and economic impact remained confidential.

The project, dubbed Maine Aqua Ventus I is the pilot for the potential development of a 100- to 500-megawatt offshore facility in the Gulf of Maine.

Thaler said the ultimate goal is to achieve wind-generated electricity at 10 cents per kilowatt-hour by the mid-2020s.

Thaler said he believes Maine’s project, with a power-purchase agreement in hand, has a good chance of being successful in the competition for federal funds.

It’s a sentiment shared by Patrick Woodcock, director of the Governor’s Energy Office, and state Sen. John Cleveland, D-Auburn, Senate chairman of the Legislature’s Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee.

Woodcock said while he wasn’t directly involved in the consortium’s application to the DOE, he had been following it closely and believes they will put forward “a very competitive proposal.”

Both he and Cleveland voiced interest in seeing the details on the cost of power from the project.

“In the next week or so, we will learn what is the price and what are all the other economic benefits for the state of Maine,” Woodcock said.

He said securing the federal grant was instrumental in moving the state forward with offshore wind. 

“I think lost in this debate is that whoever gets the Department of Energy funding will leap-frog forward in the development of offshore wind,” Woodcock said. “So positioning the state for that grant is absolutely critical.”

Cleveland said he believed the consortium’s project would advance several important innovations, both in design and material use, that would make the project appealing to the DOE. 

The federal government also might look favorably on the idea that the consortium is largely U.S.-based companies, which as the technology is advanced, could lead to economic growth and job creation here, rather than in a foreign country, Cleveland said.

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