State utility regulators approve giant wind deal — again

HALLOWELL — A deal to pump hundreds of millions of dollars into construction of wind energy projects in Maine and across the Northeast has been approved by Maine’s utility regulators.

Maine utility regulators gave approval for the second time to a multimillion-dollar project to construct wind turbines across the region

Gabor Degre/BDN

Maine utility regulators gave approval for the second time to a multimillion-dollar project to construct wind turbines across the region

Tuesday’s vote by the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) was the second time the agency approved the deal to create a joint venture owned by First Wind and Nova Scotia energy giant Emera, and also involves Emera-owned utilities Bangor Hydro and Maine Public Service.

The first approval came in April 2012, but shortly afterward three parties appealed the approval to the state’s highest court. While that appeal was pending, the deal went ahead and was closed in June. Then, in March, 2014, a year and a half after the appeal was filed, the court ruled that the Commission had applied the wrong standard in approving the deal, vacated the approval and sent the case back for reconsideration.

That reconsideration is what happened on Tuesday.

The appeals were made by the state Public Advocate, the Houlton Water Company and the Industrial Energy Consumers’ Group, which represents large energy users and advocates for lower electricity prices.

Their primary argument was that the deal would violate the state’s landmark electricity Restructuring Act. That law barred electricity transmission companies like Bangor Hydro from owning electricity generation because it was seen as anti-competitive and contributing to high electricity prices.

On Tuesday, commissioners voted, 2-1, to approve the deal. Commissioners Thomas Welch and David Littell voted in favor of it, Commissioner Mark Vannoy voted against it.

“I do not see any significant harm to the (Restructuring) Act’s objectives by permitting this relationship,” said Welch.

Dina Seeley, spokeswoman for Emera, said Tuesday, “We look forward to reviewing the Commission’s written order. In the meantime we are very encouraged by their deliberations.  The First Wind transaction demonstrates our ongoing commitment to the State of Maine and builds upon the nearly $1 billion we have already invested in Maine. We are confident it will bring more jobs and more renewable energy to the region, consistent with the state’s clear mandate of promoting clean energy.”

First Wind, likewise, praised the decision.

“We thank the Commission for revisiting the transaction consistent with the direction of the Supreme Judicial Court and for approving the transaction once again,” said spokesman John Lamontagne.

But Alan Stone, attorney for appellant the Houlton Water Company, said the two commissioners who approved the deal had not followed the direction set by the Supreme Judicial Court.

“We don’t believe that what the commission did today really addressed the issues” raised by the court, said Stone.  “We think that this vote was inconsistent with the language and purposes of the Restructuring Act.”

Stone says he will consult with his clients at the Houlton Water Company and with the other parties that joined in the 2012 appeal and determine whether to appeal the latest PUC decision.

This story is part of the continuing series, Energy in Maine, by The Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, a nonpartisan, non-profit news service based in Augusta. Email: pinetreewatchdog@gmail.com. Web: pinetreewatchdog.org.

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