SKOWHEGAN – Somerset County commissioners this week pledged their support for a 145-mile transmission line proposed by Central Maine Power Co. through rural communities and commercial forestland in the county.
In a 4-0 vote, with District 1 Commissioner Robert Sezak of Fairfield abstaining, commissioners said the plan, if accepted as part of the New England Clean Energy Connect Project, would be good for tourism and local infrastructure, boost the region’s tax base and reduce energy prices.
CMP submitted a plan in August to build a 145-mile, high-voltage transmission line through parts of Maine to send hydro-electric power from Quebec to Massachusetts.
In a letter to the Massachusetts Department of Energy dated Wednesday, county commissioners said recreation and economic development industry representatives have been meeting with CMP officials to identify ways the project could help Somerset County’s “nature-based” tourism industry.
“No other project comes close to minimizing the environmental impact on our land while maximizing economic benefits to the region,” commissioners wrote.
Area residents who attended a meeting in Bingham hosted by CMP in September said they didn’t trust the power company, and feared the proposed corridor was designed to benefit the wind power industry. They have criticized plans to build wind turbines near Moosehead Lake, saying they would harm tourism.
Richard McDonald of the Moosehead Region Futures Committee has said the transmission corridor is just another ploy “to line the pockets of CMP.”
“While we respect the commission’s decision to support CMP’s transmission plan to deliver renewable energy to Massachusetts, we stand firm in our position that its development poses a direct threat to the region’s all important tourism industry,” McDonald said in an email. “The CMP project is a private venture and has nothing to do with providing affordable power to Maine.”
McDonald said both the Maine Department of Environmental Protection and the Maine Public Utilities Commission are scheduled to conduct public hearings to “allow local residents who have a lot at stake to have their voices heard.”
“There’s no guarantees that this project will receive a permit,” he said.
The Conservation Law Foundation and the Appalachian Mountain Club also have petitioned DEP for hearings, according to McDonald.
Somerset County Commissioners, along with local state senators and representatives, previously issued a resolution strongly opposing additional wind turbines in the county.
But CMP’s John Carroll, who attended Wednesday’s county commissioners’ meeting but did not speak, has said the transmission line project is for hydro power, not wind power.
“This has no wind in Maine associated with it,” Carroll said in September of the New England Clean Energy Connect transmission project. He said another, separate CMP transmission project called the Maine Clean Power Connection could include wind power at some point in the future.
In abstaining from Wednesday’s board vote, Sezak said he abstained from the vote on the power corridor because the power lines would cross over Kennebec Gorge, where whitewater rafting draws thousands of visitors every year from Harris Station to Carry Brook farther downriver.
“CMP states it will cost $10 million to go under the gorge,” he said. “They have not provided a cost to go over the gorge. It is my opinion our ecology-based tourism would be irrevocably harmed to have the power lines go over the gorge.”
Sezak said the decision to go over or under the gorge is still in deliberation and that is the only reason for his abstaining.
“That is my only bone of contention,” he said. “It is a sound project otherwise.”
The proposed corridor would also pass near the Appalachian Trail where it crosses the Kennebec River at Caratunk.
The power transmission line would start in Beattie Township on the Canadian border north of Coburn Gore. Carroll said the corridor would be 300 feet wide at first, then widen to around 500 feet in places with 100-foot transmission towers. The line would run south of Jackman to Johnson Mountain Township, skirting West Forks to Moxie Gore and The Forks, where the new line would join the existing line from Harris Station at the head of the Kennebec River.
The line also would run near Caratunk and Moscow to the Wyman Lake hydroelectric station, crossing the Kennebec River south of Bingham into Concord Township. From there the line would run through Embden and Anson and into Starks, Industry and New Sharon to Farmington and south to Lewiston.
For the project to become a reality, Massachusetts and its utilities would have to take at least one of the bids that CMP and its partners formally made in August as part of the competition to provide the Bay State with massive amounts of electricity.
Carroll said when the company bought the land, officials looked at conservation and sensitive areas they would have to avoid “to be a good neighbor.” He said woodland owners who sold them the land were on board with what would be done to it.
“We own all the land for the corridor and substation sites,” Carroll said by email Thursday. “We are still working with a few towns, but we are getting ready with an announcement on that in the next day or so.”
The project cost is confidential, but CMP has confirmed that it’s in the $1 billion range, the Portland Press Herald reported in August. The total cost would be paid by Massachusetts electricity customers. Maine would benefit from 1,700 new construction jobs, added tax revenue and anticipated savings of $40 million per year on wholesale energy costs over the 20-year life of the power contract, according to CMP.
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