Massachusetts energy officials ended talks Wednesday with the developer of a proposed transmission line from Quebec through New Hampshire and said they would seek power agreements using an alternate line through Maine.
Massachusetts Clean Energy issued a statement saying that the state’s electric utilities had terminated the conditional selection of the Northern Pass project and now are working to conclude negotiations with Central Maine Power Co. for its $950 million New England Clean Energy Connect line.
The action comes after a siting committee in New Hampshire rejected the Northern Pass proposal, and the developer was unable to gain approval by a March 27 deadline set by Massachusetts.
Avangrid, CMP’s parent company, said it was grateful to Massachusetts officials and is working to conclude power contract agreements with three Massachusetts utilities. It plans to submit them to the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities by an April 25 deadline.
“Our applications for state and federal permits continue to move forward with the strong support of communities and stakeholders in Maine,” said Doug Herling, CMP’s president and chief executive officer. “We believe the NECEC is a cost-effective response to Massachusetts’ needs. CMP has successfully built other large-scale projects here in our home state, so we’re confident we can meet our commitments to the Commonwealth.”
Wednesday’s action will trigger a new level of scrutiny for CMP’s plan to build a 145-mile line along land it already owns. The line would run from Beattie Township, on the Canadian border north of Route 27 and Coburn Gore, through Farmington and Jay to Lewiston, where it would connect to the regional electric grid. Much of the project is along an existing corridor, but the section from the Canadian border to north of The Forks would be new.
The line would cross the Kennebec Gorge, a scenic, 10-mile cut in the river traversed each summer by thousands of whitewater rafters. It also would bisect the Appalachian Trail.
ENVIRONMENTAL GROUP OBJECTS
Environmental and recreational interests have largely withheld public judgment on the proposal, waiting to assess its chances. But on Wednesday, a leading Maine environmental group came out against the line.
“Just like Northern Pass, CMP’s proposed New England Clean Energy Connect power line across Maine would significantly harm Maine communities and the environment,” said Dylan Voorhees of the Natural Resources Council of Maine. “And, just like the Northern Pass proposal, there is absolutely no evidence that the Maine power line would reduce climate-changing emissions at all.”
Because the power would come from existing dams owned by Hydro-Quebec and not new sources, Voorhees and others have raised the possibility that the project would simply divert hydroelectricity now used in New York, Quebec and Ontario. That would have no net effect on climate-change emissions, they say. Voorhees urged Massachusetts to instead select competing wind and solar options in the region.
“CMP’s well-orchestrated public relations campaign and its decision to name its project ‘Clean Energy Connect’ do not make this project ‘clean,’ ” he said.
A regional environmental group with a strong presence in Maine, the Conservation Law Foundation, took a more measured position Wednesday. It said it was assessing the project and “looking to Avangrid to avoid or mitigate its impacts and to make a firm demonstration of its benefits to Maine and the region.”
CMP also has been meeting with rafting companies and other outdoor recreation interests about crossing the Kennebec Gorge. Each year, thousands of people take guided whitewater rafting trips through that wild stretch of the Kennebec River, which features 200-foot granite cliffs. Drilling under the river to avoid stringing power lines over the gorge would add tens of millions of dollars to the project cost, but CMP hasn’t ruled out that option.
The project also is being opposed by owners of existing power plants in Maine, as well as companies that want to build new wind and solar projects.
LEPAGE SUPPORT, BENEFITS FOR MAINE
The project’s $950 million cost would be borne by Massachusetts electricity customers. Maine would benefit from construction jobs to build the high-voltage lines, and possibly from lower regional wholesale electricity costs. The power from Hydro-Quebec also would give New England a new source of renewable energy to offset shutdowns of nuclear and fossil fuel plants.
For those and other reasons, the project is warmly regarded by Gov. Paul LePage. His administration had met in February with Massachusetts officials, and said the governor would help speed up the permitting process.
It’s not clear what role LePage would have in doing that.
New England Clean Energy Connect will need several government permits. They include state approvals from the Public Utilities Commission, the Department of Environmental Protection and the Land Use Planning Commission. Federal oversight will include environmental reviews by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and international border crossing authority from the State Department.
CMP said it hopes to have state permits by year’s end and federal approvals in early 2019. Construction could start in 2019 and take two years.
A 2016 law in Massachusetts kicked off a process to solicit proposals to supply offshore and land-based renewable energy to the Bay State. Developers with 46 projects worth billions of dollars responded. In January, Massachusetts chose to negotiate with the developer of Northern Pass, a 1,090-megawatt line to carry power more than 190 miles from the Canadian border into New Hampshire. CMP’s proposal didn’t make the cut.
REJECTED DEVELOPER PERSISTENT
But New Hampshire’s siting committee voted unanimously Feb. 1 to deny a certificate for Northern Pass. After that happened, Massachusetts gave Northern Pass until March 27 to get approval. It also simultaneously began negotiating with CMP as a backup choice.
The lead developer of Northern Pass, Eversource Energy, issued a statement Wednesday saying it understood the decision in Massachusetts, given the status of the New Hampshire permitting process. But noting that it has secured several key permits, the company said it wasn’t giving up.
“Despite recent delays,” Eversource said, “we continue to believe that Northern Pass is the best project for the region and New Hampshire, and we intend to pursue all options for making it a reality.”
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