University of Maine's floating wind turbine, VolturnUS, is seen in this 2014 file photo during a celebration of its first year at sea in Castine. In a move seen as a major setback for a pilot offshore wind project now under development by the University of Maine, state regulators voted Tuesday to reconsider the contract terms by which Central Maine Power agreed to purchase electricity from the project. Credit: Ashley L. Conti

In a move seen as a setback for a pilot offshore wind project under development by the University of Maine, state regulators voted unanimously Tuesday to reconsider the contract terms by which Central Maine Power agreed to purchase electricity from the project.

The Public Utilities Commission voted in 2014 to allow the $80 million UMaine Aqua Ventus project to negotiate a price at which CMP would buy electricity generated by the floating wind turbines, to be located off the island of Monhegan. But in January, citing concerns about how much of the bill CMP’s customers would be asked to foot — in light of prevailing electricity prices — the commission decided to put the contract on hold while it considered whether to allow it.

The commission released a statement Tuesday afternoon saying changes in technology and the electricity market, and in the UMaine proposal, make the contract review necessary. As it is, CMP customers could be on the hook for more than $200 million over the duration of the proposed 20-year contract.

In the statement, commission officials said some recent energy market price projections are as much as 80 percent lower than those considered by the commission when it approved the Aqua Ventus term sheet four years ago.

“The commission understands the importance of this project to [Aqua Ventus] and its stakeholders,” Mark Vannoy, chairman of the commission said in the statement. “On the other hand, it is incumbent on the commission to ensure that the proposal continues to meet the legal requirements established by the Legislature in 2010 and remains in the public interest of Maine citizens and businesses.”

Habib Dagher, director of UMaine’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center, said Tuesday that there is reason to believe the commission will agree to move ahead under the current terms. He said he hopes UMaine can supply the commission with additional information in support of the project by the end of the year.

Dagher said Vannoy on Tuesday noted the partners in the Aqua Ventus project have made good progress in the past five years and that there is “solid technology” behind the project. He also said Maine, which has received $40 million in federal funding from the Department of Energy to develop floating turbine technology, is representing the country in an international race to make offshore wind viable — an initiative that he said has received overwhelming support in the Legislature and from Maine voters.

Just a few days ago, he added, a report was released that indicated development of an offshore wind infrastructure industry in Maine could support 2,100 jobs.

“We’ve been blessed with bipartisan support on this project in the Legislature,” Dagher said. “The next step is turning that into business opportunities for the state of Maine. That’s why I am optimistic we can get this done.”

The Natural Resources Council of Maine, was less charitable in its reaction. It criticized the commission’s vote on Tuesday to reconsider the contract terms, saying it was a “bad faith” decision that reflects Gov. Paul LePage’s anti-wind stance.

In 2013, Norwegian firm Statoil pulled out of a $120 million project in Maine after LePage pushed the Legislature to revisit the contract terms for that project, the group noted in a prepared statement. Last year, Lepage supported an ultimately unsuccessful bill that would have banned offshore wind turbine development within 10 miles of Monhegan.

“This administration will do anything to thwart renewable energy development, whether it comes from international investors or our own University of Maine,” Dylan Voorhees, NRCM’s clean energy director, said in the release. “Today’s decision is out-of-line with the views of Maine people and with our economic interests. In a poll conducted this April, 72 percent of likely Maine voters said they support actions to create an offshore wind industry in Maine.”

Despite his more optimistic stance, Dagher did said it is important that the commission not delay much longer in allowing the power purchase contact to move ahead. Interest in offshore wind technology is spreading around the globe, he said, and Maine should not squander its lead in bringing it to reality.

“Ten years ago, nobody was talking floating [turbine technology],” he said. “The stakes are high because the rest of the world is moving so fast.”

Watch for updates.

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Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....