Some in Maine push back on plans to transmit hydropower from Quebec, after New Hampshire rejected the idea
By Jon Kamp
Wall Street Journal news story
BOSTON—Massachusetts is again testing its northern neighbors’ willingness to help meet its growing need for electricity.
Central Maine Power Co. wants to build a $950 million, 145-mile transmission line deep in the Maine woods to import hydropower from Quebec. The project grabbed the spotlight earlier this year after a competing plan in New Hampshire ran into regulatory hurdles, and Massachusetts utilities looked east for another way to import Canadian power.
Now it is Maine’s turn to decide whether a slice of its forestland should be strung with wires to support another state’s energy supply. Thus far, the project is generating support in small towns eager for added tax revenue, but objections from some environmentalists and locals who question whether the impact is worthwhile.
“I don’t care who’s paying for it, you’re coming through our towns, you need to make sure we’re getting something from it,” said Tom Saviello, a Republican state senator in the region who is also a member of the board of selectman in a town the line would briefly cross.
The project, which Central Maine Power hopes to finish by the end of 2022, needs state-level approvals in Maine, clearance from the federal government and Massachusetts regulatory approval for a 20-year deal to buy power from Quebec. Some Maine towns claim they have some zoning authority over it as well, but either way, believe their input will prove valuable as regulators review the plan.
Though Mr. Saviello opposes the line, he is pushing Central Maine Power, a unit of Avangrid Inc., to sweeten the perks, should the project go through. He would like the utility to help the region gain high-speed internet service and improve cellphone coverage to spur economic development.
The line would cut a 150-foot-wide path through about 50 miles of land long prized for its timber, and also for its recreational uses. It would then travel down an existing transmission corridor deep into the state and interconnect to the grid at a substation in Lewiston, Maine.
Central Maine Power has spent at least a year soliciting what it says is strong support from communities the project would affect. Some town officials along the corridor say they were swayed by the promise of $18 million in added annual tax revenue, which would be distributed among 38 communities.
That includes about $450,000 in new revenue for Jay, a town of about 4,600 people that is heavily reliant on taxes from a single paper mill to fund its budget, which totals about $6 million this year. “For our area, I definitely think it’s a good project,” Town Manager Shiloh LaFreniere said, regarding the line.
The Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities will have to approve a deal through which utilities in the state would buy power via the line from Hydro-Quebec, a government-owned company in Canada. The parties involved announced in mid-June they had successfully concluded contract negotiations.
The Maine project would be paid for by power customers in Massachusetts, which is trying to meet aggressive goals to get a growing amount of power from clean-energy sources. The transmission line promises a fresh test of whether the energy-constrained region can overcome a pattern of big projects succumbing to opposition.
Central Maine Power is trying to convince Mainers the power line won’t merely be a big extension cord draped across their land. The new line, which would terminate north of Portland, will supply New England, including Maine, with hydropower that could save the region about $3.9 billion in electricity costs over 20 years, the company has estimated.
As for sweetening the pot for towns, “we’re totally open minded to further discussions around these things,” said Thorn Dickinson, vice president of business development at Avangrid.
The Natural Resources Council of Maine and the Appalachian Mountain Club have objected to the project on several fronts, from potential impact on the landscape to worries about overstated environmental benefits from the hydropower project.
One sore spot is Central Maine Power’s plan to stretch wires across the Kennebec River, a popular white water rafting site. Staff at the state’s Department of Environmental Protection and Land Use Planning Commission have “serious concerns” about the potential impact of an overhead river crossing, according to a May letter to the company seeking more information.
“This section of river is widely recognized for its outstanding white water rafting and attracts thousands of visitors a year to the area, not only for the rafting experience, but also the natural beauty of the place,” the regulators said.
“I’m not really in favor of it unless they can bury it,” said Cliff Stevens, the owner of Moxie Outdoor Adventures, who has spent decades taking people rafting down the Kennebec River.
The company is willing to tunnel underground if required, but it would cost an estimated $37 million, and the overhead crossing was designed to span the river without visible towers, Mr. Dickinson said. The company said it also carefully plotted the entire route to sidestep sensitive features, such as vernal pools.
Central Maine Power and a newly formed Maine nonprofit called Western Mountains & Rivers Corp., which includes some local rafting operators, recently reached a memorandum of understanding that calls for the company to invest $22 million for measures like supporting economic development and tourism in the region.
Russell Walters, a member of the nonprofit and president of a local vacation resort and raft outfitter, said he was initially a skeptic. But he was swayed by the chance to help the region and his belief that power developments will come eventually.
“I felt like it was a fair compromise,” he said.