Is it a shell game?
by Christine Parrish
The Free Press news story
Questions are being asked as to whether a $950 million electricity transmission line that Central Maine Power proposes to build across a remote part of Maine will reduce greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere, as intended.
The proposed project is a joint effort by CMP and Hydro-Québec to deliver renewable power directly to Massachusetts to comply with a 2016 state law that requires 1,200 megawatts of power used in Massachusetts to come from clean energy sources.
If approved, the hydro-generated electricity would travel across new high-voltage transmission lines that would require CMP to clear a 146-mile corridor through Maine from the Quebec border to Lewiston, including cutting a new 53-mile corridor through Western Maine that would cross the Appalachian Trail and the scenic Kennebec River Gorge. The Kennebec Gorge is a highlight of the popular whitewater rafting route in Western Maine that starts at The Forks and attracts thousands of tourists each year.
Since Massachusetts is now mandated to comply with the new law and is likely to pay a premium for the clean energy to do so, the project will be a money maker for CMP and Hydro-Québec, but watchdog groups are concerned about the environmental impacts. At the top of the list of concerns is whether this is really a clean power deal at all.
If Hydro-Québec is not actually generating new hydropower for Massachusetts, but intends instead to divert the flow of clean power from other customers in upstate New York or elsewhere, that could leave gaps in the clean power supply, according to Nick Bennett, staff scientist at Natural Resources Council of Maine (NRCM), who was invited to speak at an information session on the transmission line hosted by lawmakers on the state Energy and Natural Resources Committee on April 10.
NRCM and other watchdog groups want to know whether, if the power is diverted, those gaps would be filled with electricity produced from polluting sources, such as oil, gas, and coal.
The end result could be no reduction in greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming and may even slightly increase greenhouse gas emissions if the large reservoirs in Quebec where hydro is produced are emitting methane from tons of trees rotting in the bottom of the large man-made lakes, as Bennett suspects.
Methane is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
So far, the answers are missing.
CMP has left it up to Hydro-Québec to answer them. Other than general claims to the benefits of hydropower, the Canadian company has not provided any detailed information on the power supply — nor did they do so during a three-year study for a similar New Hampshire transmission line project, the Northern Pass, which was ultimately rejected by New Hampshire energy regulators earlier this year.
Energy consultants for the Northern Pass proposal noted at the time that if Hydro-Québec displaced clean energy rather than creating a new supply, not only would there likely be no reduction of greenhouse gases, but it could even increase carbon and other greenhouse emissions if no-polluting wind and solar was replaced with low-pollution hydro.
After New Hampshire rejected the proposal, CMP and Hydro-Québec’s Western Maine proposal, known as the New England Clean Energy Connect (NECEC), was selected as a second choice.
Hydro-Québec maintains they have plenty of hydro capacity and no switching would be necessary, but have offered no detailed analysis.
“Every electron on the New England grid can be tracked for renewable energy credits,” said Bennett. “Hydro-Québec should know where their energy comes from and how much comes from each source, too. If they are so proud of their greenhouse gas savings and have documented it, they should be sharing it in detail, not just claiming they are doing the right thing.”
Bennett pointed out that Hydro-Québec’s business model allows for flexibility to tap into other energy sources, as needed.
“We just need answers,” he said.
One of the lawmakers on the Legislative Energy and Natural Resources Committee asked Bennett if NRCM would support the proposal if their renewable energy credibility could be confirmed through data and analysis.
“It would allow us to move forward to review other concerns,” said Bennett. The green-power question is a deal-breaker if no clear answers are forthcoming, he said.
Other, on-the-ground impacts in the transmission corridor also need answers, Bennett told lawmakers.
Sen. Tom Saviello (R-Wilton) was among those raising questions about the recreation and wildlife habitat impact in the corridor, where the line would go through about 200 vernal pools, according to some calculations.
Other concerns include a lack of data on the presence of endangered species, analysis of the impact of fragmented wildlife habitat, and the impact of routine herbicide spraying in the power lines.
CMP has met with outdoor recreation groups to talk about mitigating scenic impacts at the gorge. CMP told lawmakers that a big red ball on the overhead line was required to comply with federal airline safety regulations.
The next deadline for the NECEC project is April 25, when CMP and Hydro-Québec will submit a 20-year negotiated contract to the energy regulators at the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities for review.