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PTC Extension Means Big Business After All, Says First Wind

The "fiscal cliff" deal passed by Congress over the holidays preserved the federal production tax credits (PTC) for wind-powered energy generation projects that begin construction during 2013 (a key tweak of the language).

Industry advocates have applauded the PTC's extension, but fear that initial uncertainty about its passage, and then how late it was in coming, have already ensured a significant decline in 2013 for the wind sector. Domestic wind project developers had rushed to get projects completed by year's end, and now they're now on the clock again to ramp up projects that had been put on hold, or quickly prep new ones to be shovel-ready within a few months.

One wind developer, though, has high hopes for 2013. First Wind, which already operates 980 megawatts (MW) of wind projects in six states, and brought five projects online in 2012, says it expects to add up to 50% to its portfolio in 2013, thanks to the PTC extension.

"It's not a stretch to say 500 megawatts" worth of projects will begin construction in 2013, said Matt Kearns, VP of development for the Northeast region for First Wind.

Why is First Wind so optimistic? Some of the markets it's in have fairly complex permitting environments, and it's taken time to develop projects therein. "By virtue of the year-to-year development activity, we have some pretty advanced-stage projects," explained Kearns. Amid the uncertainty about the PTC "we could have put them on ice," but the PTC's eventual extension provided "enough certainty" for the company to move forward with those near-ready projects to final permitting and design stages.

It's worth noting that First Wind itself tied a bow on two wind projects just weeks before the looming year-end PTC deadline: the 105-MW Palouse Wind Project in Eastern Washington State in December, including a 30-year power purchase agreement (PPA) with Avista; and the 34-MW Bull Hill Wind project in Hancock County, Maine (about 30 miles east of Bangor), which has a 15-year PPA with NSTAR.

Kearns and John Lamontagne, First Wind's director of corporate communications, acknowledged that the company still wants more clarity over the PTC's language requiring a qualifying project be in a state of "continuous" construction. Thus, the bulk of its possible 50% expansion in 2013 will be largely backend-loaded into the latter half of 2013, possibly towards the end of the year. Projects the firm says could be ready for early construction work by the end of the year are in Maine, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Utah, and Hawaii. At the head of that list are two projects in Maine: Oakfield, a $400M 150-MW site in southern Aroostook County; and the 69-MW 48-MW Bowers Mountain project also near Bangor. [Editor's note: Thanks to a reader tip-off, we confirmed this project was scaled back to meet local approvals.]

The company said it is also "exploring possible projects in other areas of renewable energy" to expand and diversify its roughly 1-GW wind power portfolio. Solar energy is a natural complement to wind, Kearns noted; "it's a natural next step." Lamontagne noted the company is looking into a variety of mostly new projects "in locations across our footprint" in Hawaii, Utah, and New England -- meaning the general areas where they develop projects, not necessarily on existing project sites. "Our exploring solar is in very early stages, but it is something we’re seriously considering."

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