May 18, 2021

Mainers Opposing Clean Renewable Energy? What’s Wrong?

Posted on May 18, 2021 by Ken Gray

Mainers are generally regarded as an environmentally sensitive and enlightened populace.  The state boasts cleaner water and air than many other states, significant and beautiful natural features, and progressive environmental laws.  Yet Mainers are questioning whether to accept a new 145-mile electric transmission line that will bring hydropower from Quebec into the New England power grid, removing 3.0 to 3.6 Million tons of regional CO2 per year, and providing energy cost savings to Mainers ($40 million per year in savings) and others in New England. What gives?

Based on project approvals, construction has begun on the New England Clean Energy Connect (NECEC) project, which would add 54 miles of new transmission corridor to connect to Canada, which in the U.S. will plug into an existing 91-mile transmission corridor – meaning only about a third of the project length is located in a “new” transmission corridor. The $950 million cost will be funded entirely by Massachusetts to achieve Massachusetts’ climate change goals, but the power will feed into the New England power pool serving the region, including a proportional share for Maine’s electric customers. Hydro-Quebec will improve existing dams (not build new dams) and sell hydropower under a 20-year contract. Among the benefits are reducing oil and gas plant emissions, additional funding for electric vehicle infrastructure, preserving 40,000 acres of Maine forest land, funding broadband access, rate relief benefits for low-income consumers, grid and infrastructure improvements, and a host of local community benefits.

The project has garnered support from Maine’s former Governor Paul LePage (R) and current Governor Janet Mills (D), and they are not typically on the same side of any issue.  Environmental groups are split: the Conservation Law Foundation supports it, but the Natural Resources Council of Maine opposes it.  Perhaps predictably, the large energy companies NextERA and Calpine oppose it, and are funding the opposition:  the companies own fossil fuel and other power plants that will become less economical, and stand to lose many millions when the less expensive hydropower enters the grid. Note also that the hydropower is a “base-load” contribution, not an intermittent source like solar or wind power.

The opposition offers several objections: 

(1) Mainers don’t benefit.  This seems to be a complaint that Mainers only get $40 million in electric savings, while Massachusetts receives $150 million in savings.  Ignoring the fact that the project is being funded by the Bay State, the more populous state gets more savings based simply on its larger megawatt purchases, as it spends more on power.  The other direct benefits to Mainers are hard to argue.  

(2) The corridor is destructive of the pristine Maine environment.  The 54 new miles will cut a path through remote land that is primarily working forest; most all of it has already been logged or clear cut at some point, with logging roads crossing the corridor. In fact, there are already more than 5,000 roads crisscrossing this working forest., and crossing the proposed transmission line over 100 times.  One of Maine’s largest rivers, the Kennebec, will be crossed in a sparsely populated section of the state, and the crossing of a section of the Kennebec River gorge will be engineered using an under-river conduit. This is partially a not-in-my-backyard objection, but as most thoughtful persons appreciate, in many decisions there are environmental tradeoffs. The limited, non-unique environmental impacts seem materially outweighed by environmental benefits. Remember that forests that are not primeval are, in fact, a renewable resource, and Maine is a logging state.

Opponents point out that in 2018, the New Hampshire Site Evaluation Committee unanimously rejected the original transmission line project (so-called “Northern Pass” project to be funded by Massachusetts), which would have developed a 192-mile transmission corridor through the wooded “North Country” of that state, including a portion of the White Mountain National Forest. If New Hampshire rejected the project, why should Maine accept it? The false premise of this argument is that the project impacts in Maine are the same (or more serious) than the impacts in New Hampshire. In any event, thoroughly documented permitting approvals by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, the Maine Land Use Planning Commission, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the U.S. Department of Energy concluded the NECEC project would not have a significant adverse impact on Maine’s environment.

(3)  Avangrid (formerly Central Maine Power, the developer of the NECEC and the major transmission utility in Maine) can’t be trusted.  This objection appears calculated to stoke some recent consumer resentment from prior billing issues and customer service complaints.  While the consumer issues have been addressed through improved performance objectives and resolved with the Maine Public Utilities Commission, this broadside attack does not implicate the merits of the project, which has separately been vetted and approved (with conditions) by the Maine Public Utilities Commission.

(4) Foreign companies will benefit.  I suppose Mainers are as parochial as anyone, but this feeds on xenophobia.  The claim is that foreign companies (not Mainers) will benefit, specifically: Canadian power company Hydro-Quebec and the ultimate parent company of Avangrid, the Spanish energy company Iberdrola (incidentally, one of the largest developers of wind and solar power in the U.S. and worldwide). It is hard to take this objection seriously, since there are significant environmental and other benefits to Maine consumers and businesses, a number of whom have already hired Maine workers to build the project. Of course, Mainers alone won’t benefit, but to suggest that Mainers are being sacrificed for foreign profits is a simple and false narrative.

Major permits for the project have been secured, including a necessary Presidential Permit for international energy transmission.   The opponents have been challenging every governmental decision, and are now proposing a state-wide referendum to try to stop the project.  As my friend Professor J.B Ruhl predicted in his ACOEL blog two years ago, old green laws (and other laws) are being used to block the potential benefits promised by the “New Green Deal.”   

This is a project that will have significant long-term environmental and economic benefits.  Will Mainers be short-sighted and reject it at the ballot box?  Stay tuned.