AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) — A 12-megawatt offshore wind project a few miles off Maine's coast could transform the state into a leader of the infant industry, supporters say. But first, developers must overcome their first major hurdle: getting the green light from a panel of state regulators this week.
The Maine Public Utilities Commission is poised to vote Tuesday on whether to grant initial approval for a state contract to the University of Maine and its partner companies, called Maine Aqua Ventus, to build a two-turbine pilot project off the coast of Monhegan Island.
The vote will come nearly a year after the PUC gave the first nod to Norwegian company Statoil for its own offshore wind project, which was spiked following maneuvering by Republican Gov. Paul LePage's administration. Now those who've long urged the state to capitalize on its generous wind resources are keeping a close eye on the PUC's decision this week.
"We need to start reaping the benefits of offshore wind, both the economic benefits and renewable benefits," said Sean Mahoney, executive vice president of the Conservation Law Foundation, who criticized the administration for scuttling Statoil's project last year.
The PUC's decision is significant in terms of financing for the project and essential in helping it win a $50 million federal energy grant, said Jeff Thaler, assistant counsel to the university. He said he's cautiously optimistic the proposal will be approved since it has received strong support from the public, which shows there's a hunger to take concrete steps to combat climate change.
"Overall, we think that people are much more aware of the risk of not doing anything and we have to take action," he said.
The project has gained significant support from lawmakers and business leaders who say those environmental and economic benefits more than outweigh the short-term costs.
Maine Aqua Ventus officials have estimated that the project could create 340 full- and part-time jobs during the three years of planning and construction and $120 million in investments, half of which would be paid to Maine-based entities.
But the UMaine project is expected to cost 23 cents per kilowatt hour — significantly higher than current market rates. That comes out to nearly $9 more a year on utility customers' bills. It's expected to generate enough power for as many as 7,000 Maine homes, said Jake Ward, vice president for Innovation and Economic Development for UMaine.