Hydro-Québec east of Quebec City in April 2009. Credit: Azumanga1 / Wikimedia Commons

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Environmental groups and gas generators both oppose the project, which would carry Canadian hydropower to Massachusetts.

The proposed New England Clean Energy Connect transmission line is creating an unusual alliance of opponents in Maine that range from environmental groups to fossil fuel power generators.

Groups that are more often on opposite sides of energy debates are making cases against the proposed $950 million, 1,200 megawatt transmission line, which would carry Canadian hydropower through northern and western Maine on its way to Massachusetts.

Maine utility regulators will hold the first of five hearings in a final round of testimony Friday on the proposed 145-mile transmission line. The project is a joint venture of the provincially owned Hydro Quebec power generator and the Central Maine Power (CMP) distribution utility.

Opposing groups are making different arguments against the project. Power generators complain that it puts subsidized foreign energy ahead of local projects, while environmentalists question the forest destruction and carbon emission benefits.

“Issues like this do create odd bedfellows, and certainly our interest is in the market impacts and how we see this integrating into the overall New England power market,” said Dan Dolan, executive director of the New England Power Generators Association (NEPGA).

The Boston-based trade group represents mostly natural gas generators in the region, but Dolan says it includes 95 percent of the small hydropower generators in Maine who believe they will be pushed out of the market.

“This will undermine the ability of some of the existing resources that are providing cost-effective power and providing local reliability of their ability to operate,” Dolan said. “Play the string out a little bit and what you do is eliminate local jobs and tax base. Many of these (plants) are the last manufacturing facilities in parts of the state.”

John Carroll, spokesman for CMP and its parent Avangrid, said the project is a direct response to the Massachusetts challenge of fighting climate change.

“The debate the generators have is not necessarily with us but with public policy initiatives in Massachusetts that go outside of the market structure,” he said.

The venture, which would connect the New England power grid at an existing substation in Lewiston, is seeking a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity for the project to proceed.

The project will require new construction on 53 miles of forestland paired with 92 miles CMP-owned transmission lines. “We selected a route that allows us to optimize existing corridors, with 72 percent of the route existing in our system,” Carroll said.

The existing corridors will be widened, and 100-foot-tall towers will be erected. The greenfield is in the heart of the commercial forestry, an area that has been steadily and repeatedly logged for 150 years, which minimizes impact on natural areas popular with tourists, Carroll added.

The Natural Resources Council of Maine in a statement disputed that characterization and said it opposes the project over concerns about the environmental impact of the line itself and the sources of power.

Opponents contend fossil-fuel fired generation may be included in the power mix as Hydro Quebec has promised but cannot guarantee only hydropower will be run through the line. They also say that even if NECEC is wholly supplied by hydropower, Canadian customers could then be supplied by fossil fuel generation shifted to make up for lost capacity, with no net benefit for the environment.

This was disputed by the companies in a joint statement. “The reality is that Hydro-Québec has additional energy available, thanks to the company’s vast northern reservoir storage system; its recent 5,000-megawatt buildout of new capacity, including a 245 MW hydro facility currently under construction; and continuous investments to increase the efficiency of its existing capacity to serve the obligations of the new Massachusetts contract while maintaining sales to other markets.”

Francis Pullaro, executive director of the clean energy trade association RENEW Northeast, raised other objections. He said the project would crowd out domestic clean energy resources that could access available transmission in the Forward Capacity Market run by grid operator ISO-New England.

“Qualification of 1,200 megawatts of NECEC capacity will result in no new capacity qualifications for Maine renewable energy projects… unless offsetting retirements occurred or additional, and likely costly, upgrades are made,” he wrote.

The NECEC project, first proposed in September 2017, came as a result of Massachusetts’ Act Relative to Energy Diversity. The 2016 law championed by Republican Gov. Charlie Baker ordered utilities to negotiate long-term power purchase contracts by 2027, including 1,600 megawatts of offshore wind. The 1,200 megawatts of other clean energy sought and the timeline for obtaining essentially dictated that it would be supplied by large-scale hydropower.

In March 2017, the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources and Massachusetts utilities issued a request for long-term contracts for clean energy generation. The 46 proposed projects included two bids submitted by CMP, including NECEC, and Northern Pass Transmission in New Hampshire, a joint venture of Hydro Quebec and Eversource Energy.

In January 2018, Massachusetts selected the controversial Northern Pass, whose application was still pending before siting officials. Massachusetts also negotiated simultaneously with CMP for the NECEC project as a back-up.

That contingency became necessary as the New Hampshire Site Evaluation Committee in early February took the unusual step of an outright rejection of Northern Pass. It had faced similar objections as NECEC related to environmental impacts its effect on energy markets.

Massachusetts’ Department of Energy Resources (DOER) shifted to the Maine project only a few weeks after Northern Pass’ demise.

“Importantly, both projects were very close to each other in terms of net benefits delivered to customers, in 2017 real dollars,” DOER wrote in July 2018.

It said the total levelized price of 5.9 cents/kilowatt hour “contracts provide a highly cost-effective source of clean energy generation for Massachusetts” with total net benefits of approximately $4 billion.

The 20-year contract with NECEC still has to be approved by Massachusetts utility regulators.

After the Maine PUC hearings, final statements by project proponents and detractors will be made. The PUC examiners’ report, which is written as a staff draft of a proposed final order, is set to be released Dec. 7. Final deliberations by the PUC start December 20.

Maine’s  Land Use Planning Commission and Maine Department of Environmental Protection are also reviewing the project.

Bill Opalka

Bill is a freelance journalist based outside Albany, New York. As a former New England correspondent for RTO Insider, he has written about energy for newspapers, magazines and other publications for more than 20 years. He has an extensive career in trade publications and newspapers, mostly focused on the utility sector, covering such issues as restructuring, renewable energy and consumer affairs. Bill covers Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire and also compiles the Northeast Energy News daily email digest.