A 145-mile power line that would carry hydroelectricity from Canada to Massachusetts – and carve a path through the scenic gorge – signals a bleak future for multistate projects in New England.
by Tux Turkel, Staff Writer
Portland Press Herald news story
WEST FORKS PLANTATION — Only a sharp eye would notice the small strips of orange and blue survey tape, fluttering from tree branches along this remote stretch of the Kennebec River.
They mean nothing to the thousands of tourists who each year bob through the Kennebec Gorge on whitewater rafts. For three hours, they are immersed in a 10-mile ride through roaring rapids and past steep, forested walls that reach for open sky, unbroken by buildings, bridges or signs of civilization.
But for Pete Dostie, that survey tape is a bad sign. It marks the spot where a 150-foot-wide corridor will be etched into commercial forestland, running 50 miles to the Maine-Quebec border. Here at the lower Kennebec Gorge, high-voltage transmission lines would be strung 200 feet above the river, topped by 18 safety-marker balls on shield wires. This is where hydroelectricity generated in Canada would traverse the Kennebec, surging 145 miles to Lewiston and, finally, Massachusetts.
For Dostie, a former river guide who has navigated the gorge for 40 years, overhead wires would disrupt a cherished backcountry experience that’s becoming increasingly hard to find.
“This is one of the last pure river gorges in the Northeast,” he said, as he pulled his raft onto the riverbank in mid-June. “I don’t want to see wires with giant beach balls on them.”
A typical NIMBY statement, maybe. Preservation versus progress. But what’s happening here in the Kennebec Gorge has regional implications, and is being watched 250 miles away, in Boston.
Crossing the Kennebec is essential for the New England Clean Energy Connect project. Being developed by Avangrid, the parent company of Central Maine Power, NECEC, as it’s known, is the region’s biggest, multistate energy proposal currently in play. There’s no immediate benefit to Maine ratepayers. But with a capacity of 1,200 megawatts, NECEC could run more than 1 million Massachusetts homes.
But just as granite cliffs squeeze the river here, the Kennebec Gorge may become a choke point for NECEC. That possibility is making NECEC a test case around this question: Can any large-scale, multistate energy project get built anymore in New England?
The answer matters, because advocates say that without at least some big clean-energy projects, the region will be hard-pressed to lower fossil fuel-based carbon emissions enough to help blunt the impacts of climate change.
NEW HAMPSHIRE PROJECT FAILED
“These days,” said Paul Hibbard, a principal at Analysis Group, a global consulting firm with offices in Boston, “it seems to be getting more difficult to (build big projects), by orders of magnitude.”
Hibbard is a former chairman of the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities. He has watched ventures aimed at beefing up New England’s energy infrastructure be derailed by narrow objections. Exhibit A is the inability to build new natural gas pipelines in New England.
In 2014, the region’s governors, including Maine Gov. Paul LePage, put the weight of their offices behind a plan to expand pipeline capacity and fuel the region’s power plants with cheap gas from Pennsylvania. But opposition from residents and environmental groups, as well as court challenges, have killed or stalled all major pipeline proposals.
Now, after watching what happened earlier this year in New Hampshire, Hibbard and other experts wonder if cross-border electric transmission lines will suffer a similar fate.
A 2016 law in Massachusetts has set in motion an unprecedented process in the region to seek long-term contracts for massive slugs of renewable energy. One solution is to get more hydroelectricity from Canada.
Massachusetts utilities and energy officials thought they had found the easiest path, through New Hampshire. But their top pick – a $1.6 billion high-voltage line called Northern Pass – needed to traverse another iconic choke point, the White Mountain National Forest.
Last spring, after seven years of route changes and concessions to bury lines along additional sections of the 192-mile corridor, an obscure siting board in New Hampshire rejected a key permit for Northern Pass. Caught off guard, Massachusetts pivoted to its second choice, NECEC through Maine. At $950 million, it’s also cheaper than Northern Pass. That could translate into lower electric bills for Bay State customers.
NECEC also is less costly than a third option, a $1.2 billion transmission line called TDI New England. TDI would have brought Canadian hydro 98 miles under Lake Champlain in Vermont and then 56 miles underground along existing rights-of-way. That approach blunted opposition from most residents and environmental groups, although it was not selected by Massachusetts.
But it may turn out that NECEC is only cheaper on paper. Avangrid-CMP insists it’s too costly to spend an additional $37 million to tunnel under the river at the Kennebec Gorge, or string a longer route to cross upstream at Harris Station, Maine’s largest hydroelectric dam.
What does that decision mean, in light of the failures in New Hampshire and Vermont?
Are there lessons to be learned from Northern Pass and TDI?
Can Avangrid-CMP use that knowledge to actually get NECEC built?
The answers can’t be known yet, but these are questions that energy industry observers in New England are pondering.
“These multistate, two-country projects are so complicated to pull off,” said Bruce Mohl, editor of CommonWealth magazine in Boston and a frequent writer about the area’s economic and energy issues. “Everyone thought Northern Pass was going to pull it out. Think of how much time and money was invested in that, and in the end, it came up short.”
LOCAL OUTCRY CAN BE LETHAL
Mohl said Massachusetts officials were stunned that a small siting agency in New Hampshire had the power to kill Northern Pass. Now, officials are trying to get up to speed on the details of the Maine proposal, as well as opposition to it.
“It’s slowly dawning on folks that Massachusetts knew almost nothing about the CMP project,” he said, “and it’s not a given that it’s going to happen.”
John Carroll, a spokesman for Avangrid-CMP, offered an explanation for why Avangrid-CMP is pushing hard to cross the gorge with overhead lines.
The Massachusetts bid process is for power at a fixed price. That’s why the added cost of laying wires under Lake Champlain made TDI’s bid financially uncompetitive, Carroll asserted.
When Northern Pass foundered, Avangrid was able to offer a winning price that was based on its preferred overland route and by crossing the Kennebec Gorge overhead. Now that contracts are signed, spending an extra $37 million to tunnel under the river – 4 percent of the total cost – would make NECEC less profitable.
But finances aside, Carroll also stressed that the Kennebec Gorge is the optimal site. The route purposely sidesteps conservation lands and big water bodies, such as Flagstaff Lake.
In addition, Carroll said, CMP’s corridor is on land it already owns. The crossing is in the lower gorge, miles past the prime white water near Harris Dam.
“We think we made the right choice from the beginning,” he said.
IRONY MIGHT BE LOST ON RAFTERS
There’s an irony about debating the wild nature of the upper Kennebec River. If the river wasn’t held back, first for log drives and later for hydropower, summer whitewater rafting wouldn’t exist.
That reality is clear at 10 a.m. on a recent weekday at Harris Station, when a warning siren blares and a loudspeaker repeats: “Water levels downstream are increasing. Exit water immediately.”
Within minutes, the river flow increases, as dam operators turn up the spigot on Indian Pond. In a nearby staging area, hundreds of day trippers and their guides are preparing to haul brightly colored rafts down a cascade of steps to the riverbank below the dam, where they’ll put in. Clad in life jackets and helmets, their thoughts are with the swirling water, not regional energy policy. Most are unaware of the power line proposal, or know little about it.
Guides who run the gorge every day, though, have mixed views.
Dana DiBiase is adamant. Overhead power lines would detract from the experience of rafting a remote river, in his view. Let Massachusetts generate its own power, he suggests.
“Would you want to put power lines in your playground?” he asks. “I think that’s the answer.”
Doug Alford, who said he’s originally from Massachusetts, can see it both ways. He understands that New England shares a common electric grid. But to be able to drift for three hours and have a full wilderness experience, that’s worth saving.
He also wonders how much more it would cost the average Massachusetts electric customer to run the line under the river, or, at least, across Harris Dam.
“That would be the best option,” Alford said. “Another set of wires here wouldn’t make any difference.”
TODAY’S ERA ONE OF ACRIMONY
These opinions, reflexive and more thoughtful, may mirror a broader mindset in a society today that is more fractured, and less able to reach consensus. That, in part, may be why it’s harder to build large projects, according to Elizabeth Swain, director of strategic communications at Power Engineers, a national consulting firm.
“I think the public has an increasingly diverse view of what defines a public good,” Swain said.
Swain is a former chairwoman of Maine’s Land Use Regulation Commission. She worked on public outreach when the gas pipeline from Quebec to Portland was built in the late 1990s and currently is consulting for Avangrid on NECEC.
Local battles over regional projects have become more “granular,” Swain said, reflecting on protracted conflicts over a new Maine Turnpike tollbooth in York, and relieving traffic congestion on Route 1 in Wiscasset.
“If you have a project where there’s a greater public good, but a local impact,” she said, “it’s going to be increasingly hard to move forward.”
To prepare its permit application for state environmental regulators, Avangrid-CMP has created several photo-simulations that depict what the line would look like.
Avangrid-CMP would leave a 550-foot forested buffer along the riverbank. Because the wire spans are long, the tower structures would be far from the bank. One depiction looking north from the Moxie Gore side of the river indicates that the top of one structure would be visible at a distance of 1,530 feet.
To get a sense of how the lines might appear, Dostie steered his raft to a stretch north of where Cold Stream empties into the Kennebec. As he approached, a bald eagle watched from atop a dead pine. Dostie tied his boat to a tree branch and looked up, trying to imagine the wires, 200 feet above the water. As he stood on the riverbank, passing rafters saw him and began chanting: “No lines! No lines!”
Dostie was one of the first whitewater guides on the river in the late 1970s, selling his company in 2006. Today he runs the Hawks Nest Lodge, which overlooks the Kennebec and Route 201 in West Forks.
His opposition to power lines crossing the Kennebec Gorge illustrates how challenging it has become to find consensus on big energy projects.
In early June, Avangrid-CMP announced that it had signed a memorandum of understanding with a nonprofit organization made up of some area rafting companies and recreation interests. Broadly, Avangrid would invest $22 million to support trail development, conservation land and tourism-based improvements in the area.
That and other concessions are meant as compensation for the negative impacts of overhead lines in the gorge.
This deal took two years to negotiate, but it was immediately panned by the Natural Resources Council of Maine and the Maine chapter of the Appalachian Mountain Club. And for his part, Dostie charges that the agreement favors the financial interests of some of the co-signers. He said he has begun organizing opposition in West Forks, which has a year-round population of 60.
“West Forks was completely locked out of this thing,” Dostie said, “even though everything is happening in West Forks.”
With the permitting review still in its early stages, no one can say what impact the agreement – or opposition to it – will have on the process. But the debate shows that local conflict over a single element, or a specific place, can be pivotal to the failure or success of a regional energy project.
If there’s any doubt that the Kennebec Gorge has achieved that status, a follow-up letter sent to CMP last month by James Beyer, a licensing and compliance manager at the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, clarifies its importance.
In the letter, Beyer noted that the line would be the only overhead utility crossing between Harris Dam and The Forks township, and the only visual impact for 10 miles. The letter said both the DEP and Maine’s Land Use Planning Commission need more information about alternatives to the overhead crossing.
“From the department’s perspective at this point in time,” the letter said, “both the directional drilling alternative and the Brookfield alternative (Harris Dam) appear to have less impact on existing uses and scenic character than the proposed overhead crossing.”