The $1.4 billion transmission line project officially announced last week by Central Maine Power Co. could give the state’s economy a significant boost, creating jobs and encouraging consumer spending at a time when both are in short supply.
It is also bound to meet resistance, as it triggers one of the largest project reviews in the state’s history, affecting more than 80 communities.
The $1.4 billion is expected to translate into 6,000 jobs, ranging from engineers and environmental consultants to construction workers. They will plan and build an upgraded electronic grid spanning 350 miles, starting in Orrington in Penobscot County and eventually connecting to the rest of New England in New Hampshire.
CMP says the new lines are needed to ensure that the power grid serving the most populated parts of the state is reliable, and the cost will be shared among all New England states, which benefit from being part of the regional grid. Maine ratepayers pick up 8.5 percent of all New England transmission projects, both in and out of the state.
“I think it’s a very big deal, when you’re talking about those kind of figures. It’s huge,” said John Dorrer, director of workforce research in the state Department of Labor, referring to the size of the investment. “It has a large effect in terms of employment.”
“This will be contracts and subcontracts that spread through the economy. People will have money in their pockets to spend,” Dorrer said, and it’s coming at a time when construction work in other areas has dropped off.
Sen. Phil Bartlett, D-Cumberland, chairman of the Utilities Committee, agreed the project would bring what he called “short-term economic gains,” but wonders if all alternatives have been explored to shore up the power grid. Much of the project calls for stringing 345-kilovolt lines – the highest voltage line in the state’s transmission grid – on towers going up 75 feet.
“It’s an immense sort of build-out. Even if you have a place where lines already are going through, they’re going to be dwarfed,” Bartlett said.
Bartlett’s committee this past session dealt with a bill sponsored by Rep. Linda Valentino, D-Saco, on behalf of residents there who oppose a CMP transmission line upgrade designed to prevent blackouts in Old Orchard Beach in summer. Opponents to the project wanted some of the lines buried.
Concerns in Saco included the health effects of high-voltage lines on people, particularly children. The project has been in the permitting phase for more than two years.
“It’s going to be interesting,” Bartlett said of the debate over the statewide CMP transmission project. He said opposition tends to come from highly populated areas, where there are a lot of children in schools, day-care centers and churches.
According to CMP documents filed with the Maine Public Utilities Commission, the project involves seven new sections and two sections of rebuilt 345-kilovolt lines along with eight new sections and 20 rebuilt sections of 115-kilovolt lines, which are the next size down. There also will be what’s called re-rating of seven sections of 115-kilovolt lines.
The PUC will do the first review and, if approved at the state level, the project will go through the local permitting process on a town-by-town basis.
Those wanting to testify before the PUC as interested parties have to file by July 25 with the state. An initial case review will be held July 29.
As of Tuesday, three parties had filed for interested party or intervener status, including two residents of Eliot, who question the need for the project and its size, scope and effect on health and property values. The state’s public advocate also has filed to testify on behalf of Maine utility ratepayers.
A smaller, but still significant, $500 million project to upgrade lines owned by Maine Public Service Co. serving Northern Maine, to connect it to the Southern Maine power grid, also was submitted last week for PUC approval. A key aspect of that power line upgrade is that it would connect a proposed wind-power project in Aroostook County to the main power grid.
State Public Advocate Dick Davies, whose office represents the interests of utility customers in proceedings before the PUC, said the major issue to be decided is whether the CMP project needs to be as big as proposed.
The state will look at whether the power company considered all alternatives for such an extensive line upgrade, including energy conservation and locating smaller power plants closer to high-demand areas in Southern Maine.
“It’s not to say that everything they’re proposing isn’t justified,” Davies said, but “whether they’ve done as good a job as they need to in what they call an alternatives analysis.”
CMP President Sara Burns said last week the company had done its homework. “CMP studied 10 transmission alternatives, and our study of nontransmission alternatives has been, by far, the most comprehensive and rigorous in the history of the state,” Burns said.
Davies said while some local opposition comes from residents concerned about the health effects of high-voltage lines, that won’t be the focus of the public advocate’s review.
“Most of the recent research shows there is little to no risk,” Davies said. “Unless you hug the power line or stand under them 24 hours a day, there really isn’t an appreciable impact.”
By Victoria Wallack
8 July 2008
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