by Andy O’Brien
Free Press news story
Gov. Paul LePage and Central Maine Power are battling it out with environmental groups, local power generators and a bipartisan group of legislators over a proposed $950 million electrical transmission line from Lewiston to Quebec. The 146-mile New England Clean Energy Connect (NECEC), which is a joint effort of CMP and Hydro-Québec, would bring 1,200 megawatts of Canadian hydro power to Massachusetts through the existing regional grid to comply with the Bay State’s renewable energy goals.
CMP argues that the high-voltage line, which will be paid for by Massachusetts, will create jobs, provide tax revenue to rural communities along the route and replace millions of metric tons of carbon-emitting power.
However, Sen. Tom Saviello (R-Franklin Cty.) and Rep. Ralph Tucker (D-Brunswick), the chairs of the Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee, and Sen. David Woodsome (R-York Cty.) and Rep. Seth Berry (D-Bowdoinham), the chairs of the Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee, expressed strong opposition to the proposal in a May 4 letter to the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities.
“We oppose the project because we see no clear economic or climate benefit to Maine people,” wrote the four legislative leaders. “Specifically, we are concerned that NECEC: 1: Will not reduce and may actually increase total greenhouse emissions, 2. May result in lost jobs, tax revenue, and energy investment in Maine, and 3. Does not offer meaningful financial benefits to the people of Maine.”
Gov. LePage, a staunch NECEC proponent, was enraged by their letter. In a letter of his own, dated May 22, to Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker and Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard, the governor complained that the legislators “may have left recipients with the impression that these individuals acted with some legislative authority,” but that neither the Maine House nor Senate “directed or even condoned this letter, nor did the committees on which these individuals serve.”
“These four members represented only themselves and may have to deal with reprimands for having suggested otherwise,” wrote LePage. “I, on the other hand, speak with the full authority of my office and believe that the NECEC will benefit all of us by bringing clean, Canadian hydroelectric power into our grid with minimal environmental or scenic impact in my State.”
House Speaker Sara Gideon’s spokeswoman Mary Erin Casale said she was unaware of “reprimands” for the House members who signed the letter. A spokesman for Senate President Mike Thibodeau did not return a request for comment by deadline. Rep. Seth Berry noted in an email that while the governor has complained that Massachusetts is blocking a scheme to create a regional subsidy to expand natural gas pipeline capacity into New England, which Le-Page strongly supports, the governor is declaring his unconditional support for CMP’s project to help Massachusetts procure more power through our state.
“Our lame-duck Governor may not recognize a lemon when he sees one for sale, but my bipartisan co-chairs and I do,” wrote Berry. “We don’t care what CMP spends for election results or favors. On our watch, Maine will not be made into a cheap extension cord just to enrich CMP’s international shareholders.”
In an email to the Waterville Sentinel, Sen. Tom Saviello referred to the governor’s support for ending wood tariffs with Canada, which the Wilton Republican and the governor have clashed over in the past.
“It is interesting how much the Gov is cozying up to Canada (this and wood tariffs),” wrote Saviello. “Maybe he is looking for a job in the provinces when he is done!”
NECEC was one of dozens of transmission proposals submitted last year in response to an RFP put out by Massachusetts and utilities to procure 1,200MW of renewable energy. The winning bids will be eligible for 20-year contracts to provide power to the state starting in 2022. NECEC became the next in line for a contract earlier this spring after New Hampshire regulators pulled the plug on the winning bid, Eversource’s Northern Pass project. NECEC is currently going through the state and federal permitting process. If it is successful, it would require CMP to clear a 146-mile corridor from the Quebec border to Lewiston that would cross the Appalachian Trail and the Kennebec River Gorge, a popular whitewater rafting route.
In an analysis commissioned by the Maine Public Utilities Commission, the Boston-based firm London Economics concluded that NECEC would reduce annual CO2 emissions by 3.6 million metric tons while providing $346 million in wholesale electicity benefits during its first 15 years in operation. It also estimated that it will create over 1,600 construction jobs during the four-year construction period, increasing state GDP by $98.2 million.
Enticed by the promise of property tax relief, the Androscoggin, Franklin, and Somerset county commissions along with 37 of the 38 communities along the route have endorsed the project. However, last week Sen. Saviello convinced the Farmington selectmen to do a little more research before officially supporting NECEC because he doesn’t believe CMP is compensating towns enough, according to the Waterville Sentinel. By contrast, Saviello and his colleagues have pointed out that the TDI-NE transmission project offered Vermont $730 million for clean water, habitat conservation and clean energy development while Eversource offered nearly $211 million in similar benefits to New Hampshire residents along the route of the Northern Pass line. At the same time, Saviello has argued that the 53 miles of new transmission line will disrupt a popular whitewater rafting spot as well as animal habitat, impacting 263 wetlands, 115 stream crossings and 12 inland waterfowl and bird wading habitat areas.
“We understand and appreciate that Central Maine Power has done significant outreach to local municipalities within the project corridor,” wrote the four committee chairs in their letter to Massachusetts regulators. “However, this outreach appears to have been conducted in revenue-starved municipalities, and support for the project may be based solely on the idea that this is the only option available to them. We disagree.”
Opponents of the project have also questioned findings that the project will reduce CO2 emissions and cited testimony from rival electricity generators concluding otherwise. In an analysis commissioned by the Calpine Corporation, which owns a natural gas-fired plant in Westbrook, energy consultant James Speyer of the firm Energyzt Advisors argued that NECEC could even increase carbon emissions by simply diverting hydro power it now sells to other markets in Ontario and New York to Massachusetts, forcing the other two regions to rely on dirtier fuels to replace the hydro electricity.
“This is caused by the fact that Hydro-Québec has a fixed amount of excess energy that it can deliver into external markets,” wrote Speyer in a filing with the Maine Public Utilities Commission dated April 30. “By committing up to 9.4 TWh of energy supply to Massachusetts via NECEC, Hydro-Québec’s sales into other markets would have to be reduced in order to meet that obligation. Increased carbon emissions associated with the incremental dispatch in markets that are forced to replace reduced exports from Québec could more than offset the reduction in New England’s carbon emissions that result from the displacement of its generating resources.”
New Hampshire’s Site Evaluation Committee made a similar conclusion in its March 30 decision to deny an application to Northern Pass, which would have also delivered hydro power from Quebec to Massachusetts. In an email to the Environment and Natural Resources Committee, Hydro- Québec spokeswoman Carolyn O’Connor confirmed that the company “does not need to build any additional generation infrastructure because it is in the final stages of a significant hydropower capacity build out that has added over 5000 MW of new capacity to its system,” with a 245-MW unit scheduled to come online in 2020.
The committee chairs also referred to another Calpine Corporation-commissioned analysis suggesting that NECEC could harm existing power plants and curtail future local renewable energy projects by adding to congestion on the transmission line.
CMP declined to respond to the letter, citing its pending case before the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities. “Central Maine Power looks forward to addressing all comments submitted to regulators in Maine and Massachusetts about the New England Clean Energy Connect,” the company wrote. “This project has been carefully sited to minimize impacts to natural resources and communities and maximize benefits for Maine and the region.”
Meanwhile, the Boston Globe reported Monday that Gov. Charlie Baker’s top political advisor, Jim Conroy, worked as communications consultant to help CMP land contracts to begin building NECEC. The governor’s office told the Globe that it does not control the selection process as state law requires utility companies to choose projects based on set criteria.