Sunday, December 8, 2013
People usually have only one reason to hide something -- when they have something to hide.
So when a proposal to get the state's electric ratepayers to pay higher-than-market prices for power from an experimental offshore wind project comes sealed from public view, it's natural to wonder why.
That the proposal comes from a partnership involving the University of Maine, a taxpayer-funded institution, makes it even more curious. The public can pay for the research and pay for the electricity, but it can't be trusted with the details of the plan?
These questions are more urgent because of the roundabout way that the university's proposal was even able to enter the competition for this demonstration project. It was the result of a late-night deal in the last hours of the legislative session in which a comprehensive energy bill designed to move more natural gas into the state and finance energy-efficiency projects was held up by a demand from the governor's office.
The governor insisted on an amendment that would reopen a competition for an ocean wind project that already had been won by the Norwegian energy developer Statoil. After the amendment passed, Statoil put its plans on hold, and may not be interested in developing in Maine, regardless of the outcome of the reopened competition.
It ultimately may make sense to pick the UMaine project over Statoil's. Statoil planned to implement and refine a technology it already has established with the world's first floating offshore wind turbine off the coast of Norway. The turbines used in Maine would be mounted on steel platforms that would be made elsewhere and towed here.
The UMaine project would develop a technology that would involve concrete platforms manufactured in Maine. If successful, it could create more local jobs and put Maine in the center of a new renewable energy industry. It also could produce less-expensive electricity in the long run, making the public investment worthwhile.
Since it is a new approach, however, it also has a higher risk of failure. Maine ratepayers could fund the research and end up without much to show for it. That's why it's important that the public understand what is being proposed to the Public Utilities Commission and the factors that the commissioners are weighing.
The new technology with which UMaine and its private-sector partners are dealing may involve trade secrets, giving them good reasons to embargo parts of the report. There is no good reason to embargo all of it, however. The public deserves to know what it may be buying, and competitors need to know that the process is fair.
UMaine and its partners got a second chance at this contract, thanks to some behind-the-scenes political dealing. It is incumbent on the university to show that if it wins this competition, it is because the university's proposal is the better choice for Maine taxpayers and electric ratepayers and not because the fix was in.
UMaine's proposal may well be the better option. It doesn't help build confidence in the bidding process, however, when the university acts as if it has something to hide.