Looking up from under a transmission tower.
Northern Maine wind power could be key to reaching the state's renewable energy goals, but further development depends on transmission.

A solution may be on the horizon in the long-running debate over what to do about transmission in northern Maine, as lawmakers prepare to introduce a bill that would open the path for a line connecting new generation in the region to the rest of New England.

The rural region, home to Aroostook County, has long been eyed by renewable developers, especially for wind. Aside from the development it would bring to the economically disadvantaged region, the power could be used to help Maine and other New England states meet their renewable goals.

Maine has a goal of getting 100% of its energy from renewable resources by 2050, with an interim goal of securing 80% by 2030. The northern region could be key to getting that generation, but it depends on more transmission, a need that’s been complicated by finances, politics and logistics.

“Aroostook County has the most renewable energy generation potential in the state,” Paul Towle, president and CEO of the Aroostook Partnership, wrote in an email. The economic development group has investors including EDP Renewables, one of several companies whose wind energy plans have been stalled, and Versant Power, the electric utility that serves the county.

“The necessity to build new, or upgrade existing, transmission corridors prevents these potential grid-scale wind, solar or biomass projects from competing with projects in southern Maine that can access markets without costly transmission investments,” Towle said.

Developers estimate northern Maine has the potential for thousands of megawatts of clean energy generation, but as it is, any one project would likely have to shoulder the cost of a transmission line. That could be around $500 million, said Amy Kurt, senior manager of government affairs in eastern North America for EDP.

“Aroostook County has some of the best onshore wind resources in the region,” Kurt said. “They have all the ingredients you need in the recipe to build a successful clean energy project, but for the transmission line.”

The new bill is spearheaded by Maine Senate President Troy Jackson, who represents Aroostook County. It will direct the Public Utilities Commission to issue two requests for proposals: One would be for a transmission line to connect new generation in northern Maine to ISO-NE. The other request would be for the generation itself. Much of that would likely come from wind, but it wouldn’t be limited to wind.

The specifics of the bill will have to be hashed out in committee, but the ultimate goal is to incentivize the utilities commission to get the transmission line built, Jackson said in an interview. Past discussions have been hampered by cost, but by requiring proposals for a line that would have to accommodate multiple generators — as opposed to one line tailored to one generator, which is prohibitively expensive — the end result will hopefully be a competitive bidding process that keeps costs lower, he said.

“We’ve got to let the PUC obviously be mindful of ratepayers, which is their job,” Jackson said. At the same time, he said, “we’ve been waiting a long, long time for transmission lines in Aroostook County.”

The senator’s bill would also allow state leaders to avoid the thornier discussion over the broader future of northern Maine’s grid, which isn’t connected to ISO-NE.

Aroostook is served largely by the Northern Maine Independent System Administrator, a grid operator that secures power through the Canadian province of New Brunswick. The prospect of connecting to ISO-NE has been a point of discussion in recent years, but that could be a political challenge, particularly given potential ratepayer impacts.

Rather than drawing that debate out, some advocates say officials can make it easier by avoiding the larger discussion and focusing instead on constructing a transmission line that can just be used to export new generation out of northern Maine and to the rest of New England.

“The point is, you decouple [the issues],” said David Littell, a consultant and former commissioner at the Maine Public Utilities Commission. He was part of a stakeholder group convened by the Nature Conservancy that recently released a set of recommendations to help Maine modernize its grid. (The report was funded in part by the Barr Foundation, which also provides funding for the Energy News Network.)

Among those recommendations was for the state to quickly develop transmission in northern Maine, in part by separating the issue of broader ISO-NE connection from an immediate transmission line to connect new generation.

EDP began preparations in 2001 for its Number Nine wind farm in Aroostook County. Kurt said the company would like to build it out to as much as 1,000 MW of capacity. EDP signed leases with landowners between Presque Isle and Houlton near Maine’s eastern border with New Brunswick, in unincorporated, largely forested land. Preparations, including testing wind speeds — which is necessary to prove the project’s viability to investors — continued for the next several years. The company even began the permitting process.

But when the cost of transmission became apparent, the project stalled, Kurt said. EDP has held on to its leases since then, even as the land has changed ownership.

Supporters of new renewable projects say they’ll bring jobs and tax benefits to Aroostook County, which is considered one of the most “socially vulnerable” counties in the state. This is based on a social vulnerability index developed by the consulting group Applied Economics Clinic for a report commissioned earlier this year by the Maine Governor’s Energy Office.

Aroostook County has long been considered a disadvantaged area, lacking the same job opportunities and investment that the more densely populated southern areas of the state have benefited from. In Maine’s large-scale renewable energy procurement round last fall, almost all the selected projects were downstate.

Given the economic benefits and Aroostook County’s rural landscape, Jackson and others said, wind energy has faced less opposition in the county than it often does in more crowded areas where aesthetics are a concern.

The transmission line would also open opportunities for renewable development beyond wind. The area has seen little solar development, and its biomass industry has waned due to the transmission costs associated with the current system that carries the power through Canada, Jackson said.

“That’s a cost that a lot of the other places around the state don’t have to worry about,” he said.

The bill wouldn’t change electricity rates for customers in the region. The new transmission line, called a generation lead line, would only export the power out of the region and into ISO-NE territory. Routing it back into Aroostook County would require discussion on connecting the region to the rest of New England.

But this new line will put the region most of the way there, Kurt said. If leaders and residents in the region want to fully interconnect to ISO-NE, the line would provide a much closer point of interconnection to access in the future.

For Jackson, getting a transmission line would address an issue that’s been on his radar for years.

“Since I was a kid, I’ve heard about this problem,” he said. People often talk about Aroostook County’s wind potential, he said. “But if you can’t get the power out, it doesn’t matter.”

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David has written on health, science and the environment for various outlets, including World Wildlife Fund and the Chicago newspaper Windy City Times. He has reported on topics including the city’s opioid epidemic, bird research at the Field Museum, and LGBT youth in foster care, and was a Chicago correspondent for the Energy News Network. Now based in New York, David covers northern New England.