A bill under review in the Legislature poses a threat to a proposal in Wiscasset for an electric conversion substation that would divert surplus electricity from the Maine grid system to southern New England via undersea transmission lines.
The Green Line Project, a 660 megawatt high voltage underwater DC transmission operation, is a proposal of the New England Independent Transmission Co., LLC that has barely got underway, and local officials fear that the bill could snuff it out before it even begins.
If passed, they argue that the legislation would effectively stymie any such operation unless the Public Utilities Commission issues a finding that transmission lines operating at more than 34.5 kilovolts will reduce the cost of electricity to state consumers, according to an amended version of the bill. Originally the bill was less restrictive pertaining to projects with transmission lines operating at more than 138 kilovolts.
A Wiscasset delegation attended a hearing last Thursday in Augusta on the legislation before the Joint Standing Committee for Utilities and Energy. Selectmen Alex Robertson and Dave Nichols, Jr. accompanied Town Manager Arthur Faucher, who spoke out against the measure on behalf of the town.
“We have a fear that a planned underwater transmission project requiring several million dollars in investment is ready to be abandoned,” Faucher told the committee.
Faucher believes that if you keep on doing the same things you have always done, you are going to keep on getting the same things. As he was speaking before the committee, he remarked about a sign he spotted through a window in the hearing room that says, “going out of business”.
During his testimony, he stated that in December, Wiscasset selectmen wholeheartedly endorsed the project because they felt it would be good for Wiscasset.
Promoters of the project estimate that it would recover 20 percent of the tax base lost from Maine Yankee’s closure. They say that it would also open up electrical business for the state, such as a proposed wind propeller operation in Aroostook County that would be ten times the size of the one in Mars Hill.
In retrospect, Faucher said Friday that he was surprised that there was so much support for the bill. Lobbyists for the pulp and paper industry and other businesses were on the long list of people testifying before the committee. ISO-New England, for one, made known its support as an answer to bring electric rates in New England and Maine down to the national average, by controlling growth in peak electricity use and building power resources that use low cost fuels instead of natural gas, or oil subject to volatile price spikes.
“What is going to be good for the people is going to be good for Wiscasset, and what is good for Wiscasset is going to be good for the people of Maine,” Faucher said.
Undaunted by the numerous lobbyists and industrial leaders present to approve the piece of legislation, Faucher went to the heart of the matter with comments about the state’s need to be hospitable to new business.
“This proposed legislation is sending the message that we (state) are no longer going to be host and, not only that but, that we are no longer going to be happy to be a host,” he said.
Green Line developer Steve Conant, vice president of the New England Independent Transmission Co., testified, “If this bill is passed, it will be interpreted by our investors as a clear message from the State of Maine that our business is not wanted and we should be directing our efforts elsewhere,” he said.
Conant charged that the bill imposes a standard of review that no other transmission project in the state would be subject to.
“I cannot believe that this committee would want to kill our project at this early stage and without the kind of careful regulatory review that the project deserves,” he said. “Yet that is exactly what this bill would accomplish.”
Also in opposition to the bill, Frederick Woodruff, a principal in Energy Advisors, LLC, an electric consulting energy group, spoke for Aroostook Wind Energy, one of his firm’s clients. Aroostook Wind Energy has plans for a 500-megawatt wind project to be spread out over several areas in potato fields in Aroostook County over several years.
“If we proceed with the project, one of the primary issues will be obtaining access to power markets large enough to absorb all 500-megawatts of our output,” he said. “Currently, Aroostook County is not electrically interconnected with the rest of Maine, although it is interconnected with New Brunswick.”
The company has been participating in a stakeholder process sponsored by the state Public Utilities Commission (PUC), which is seeking to identify a way to meet future power needs of northern Maine’s electric customers, generation project developers, and other interested parties.
During the stakeholders meeting in December, the company worked with a transmission working group, formed during the initial meetings and charged with the task of determining the feasibility of constructing a new high-voltage interconnection, that would allow power to flow between southern Maine and the northern Maine grid. That would allow the wind operation to send its power output directly into the Maine grid without going through New Brunswick.
“Construction of the Green Line would greatly improve the ability to move renewable power from Maine to the high value market in southern New England,” Woodruff said. “In addition to benefiting the Aroostook wind energy project, the new line would move Maine closer to the Governor’s expressed goal of making Maine a platform for exporting renewable power to the south.”
Woodruff argued that the bill would cripple the Green Line and it unjustly singles out the Green Line “for this harsh treatment” as well as stifles the development of responsible power projects in Maine.
In his opinion, the company ought to be able to go before the PUC under the current standards to determine its benefits.
“Passing LD 764 would send a very ominous message to companies such as Aroostook Wind Energy, who are working hard to develop Maine-based environmentally responsible energy projects,” he said.
Lobbyist Atty. Newell Augur, speaking on behalf of Bangor Hydro Electric Co., questioned the need for the bill, since any 100-kilovolt transmission line or higher in Maine has to receive PUC and state Dept. of Environmental Protection approval.
He cited economic benefits to transmission lines, such as the company’s Northeast Reliability Interconnect, a 345-kilovolt transmission line it is building between Orrington and Point Lepreau, N.B.
“There are, however, other benefits to transmission lines, beyond simply costs savings, that can and should be qualified,” Augur said.
The company is also in the process of building a new transmission line from Ellsworth to Trenton that may not save money, but will dramatically reduce the possibility of power outage during a storm or periods of high demand during the summers, he said.
Eric Bryant, senior counsel for the state Public Advocate Office, without taking a position on the bill, stated that the bill would not apply to cable used to supply power to the inhabitants of offshore island, such as Vinalhaven and Swan’s Island, under the submerged lands statute.
“Any amendments to the bill should be scrutinized to ensure that this remains the case,” he said. “As drafted, the bill would apply to cables used to bring power ashore from any offshore wind farms that may be developed in the future.”
Lobbyists and company officials in favor of the bill express their fears about higher cost of electricity because of power transmission to locations outside of Maine, where rates are higher than that of Maine and might cause Maine rates to go up.
Atty. Anthony Buxton of Preti-Flaherty law firm, who is counsel to Industrial Energy Consumer Group, said, “As you know, Maine has a surplus of generating capacity, due to our state’s energy policies that promoted the development of renewable and other generating resources. We have already paid, in some cases, quite dearly for this generating capacity surplus.”
Buxton said that Maine pays about eight percent of the cost of all ISO-New England transmission projects, which total over $4.5 billion for currently approved projects.
“Maine, a state which has long built adequate transmission to provide electricity, even in the far flung reaches of the state which equals the rest of New England in size, is being required to endlessly subsidize a smaller state (Connecticut) which has declined to meet its own transmission needs,” he said.
Buxton complained that a project like Green Line would raise Maine’s rates by another eight percent.
“If, indeed, it is better to give than to receive, people must think Maine is either very, very good or perhaps very, very stupid,” he said.
Contrary to some opinions, the bill would not limit wind generation because wind and similar units with no or low fuel cost are among the first approved and bypass transmission limitations. “This will affect the most expensive and thus the most polluting plants and make them lower their prices,” he said.
Patrick Strauch, executive director of the Maine Forests Council, said that “the provisions to require the PUC to make a finding that a new line will not raise costs to Maine ratepayers before it issues a certificate of public convenience and necessity seems reasonable and a good public policy process.”
So far, two locations for a converter substation for the Green Line project are under consideration for the multi-million dollar facility ““ the Point East technology park and the former Maine Yankee plant site, both in Wiscasset. It would convert AC power to DC power for transmission to southern New England, and there will be another station at the other end of the 140-mile cable to convert the power back to AC power.
The committee is expected to meet for a work session that will include review of the testimony pro and con for LD 764.
By Greg Foster
14 March 2007
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