Opponents of a plan to build a 145-mile transmission line through western Maine filed their objections with state regulators Monday in a bid to kill or at least reshape the major regional energy project proposed by Central Maine Power’s parent company.
In testimony filed with the Maine Public Utilities Commission, critics of the plan to bring hydropower from Quebec to Massachusetts argued that:
• Maine power plants, including Wyman Station in Yarmouth, could close, and hundreds of jobs and more than $5 million in property tax revenue would be lost.
• Several Maine wind and solar projects could be canceled, too, because the line would be designed like an interstate highway from Canada with no on-ramps in Maine for other generated power.
• Despite being labeled a clean project, the line wouldn’t really lower carbon emissions that accelerate climate change because no new hydropower facilities would be built, meaning fossil-fuel power plants outside New England would be called on to backfill demand in New York state and elsewhere created by the diversion of power to Massachusetts.
At issue is the future of the New England Clean Energy Connect, a $950 million high-voltage transmission line proposed by Avangrid, CMP’s parent company.
STANDARDS TO MEET, INFLUENTIAL FOES
Specifically, CMP/Avangrid has to win a certificate of public convenience and necessity, which means that the project must meet standards that include state renewable energy goals, economics and reliable service.
Opponents of the project have deep pockets and strong interests in retaining and growing their share of Maine’s energy market.
Houston-based Calpine Corp. is the country’s top power generator using natural gas, with a large power plant in Westbrook. It also has ambitions to develop wind projects in Maine.
Dynegy Inc., also in Houston, owns natural gas- and coal-fired plants around the country, including gas plants in Bucksport and Veazie.
NextEra Energy, based in Juno Beach, Florida, is among the world’s biggest utilities, moving heavily into wind and solar. It operates Wyman Station and is developing wind and solar projects across Maine.
These companies have retained consultants with extensive energy industry experience to poke holes in the assurances from Avangrid’s hired experts that the transmission line is good for Maine.
Avangrid didn’t respond to the testimony Tuesday, but may get a chance to formally rebut it at the PUC this spring.
WILL PROJECT BENEFIT MAINE RESIDENTS?
The proposed project would be built to satisfy ambitious clean-energy goals in Massachusetts, and utility customers there ultimately would pay the entire cost. The 1,200 megawatts of capacity is enough power to run more than 1 million homes. To win approval, Maine regulators must find that the project will benefit Maine residents, even though none of its electricity will be sold in the state.
CMP has said the project will save Maine ratepayers roughly $40 million a year by lowering wholesale electricity costs in New England. Communities along the transmission corridor will share $18 million a year in new tax revenue, and nearly 1,700 direct and indirect jobs will be created during construction, CMP says.
Asked Tuesday to clarify the $40 million savings to Maine ratepayers, John Carroll, an Avangrid spokesman, said an analysis done for the company attempts to quantify the “downward pressure” on energy prices in the wholesale markets. The effect, he said, is similar to using less of a higher-cost fuel to meet electric demand; it produces lower prices for consumers.
In the testimony, opponents acknowledge that the project could “suppress” wholesale electric rates at first. But Tanya Bodell, executive director at Energyzt Advisors LLC in Boston, said that falling prices associated with other planned renewable generation projects would soon negate the impact of the new transmission line.
Also in dispute is whether the tax and job benefits created by New England Clean Energy Connect would be negated by the losses associated with the closings of existing plants.
One example of a plant at risk, Bodell said, is Wyman Station in Yarmouth, which supports 53 full-time jobs and pays more than $1 million in annual taxes. The plant burns oil and typically only runs during the coldest days of the winter when it is needed by the regional grid operator. If Wyman is too strategic to close, Bodell said, a handful of other Maine plants would be candidates, including ones in Rumford, Bucksport and Veazie. That could result in the loss of up to 200 jobs and $5.5 million in annual tax revenue, she estimated.
These plants would be at risk not only because of price competition, but because of a bottleneck on the transmission network near the New Hampshire border. This congestion will make it hard to handle a big slug of power from the new transmission line without pushing aside existing generators.
“That impedes the ability of generators like Westbrook from getting our power into the broader regional market,” said John Flumerfelt, a spokesman for Calpine. “It will temporarily lower prices in Maine, but it will then either force existing plants to retire or ask for their own subsidies. Prices ultimately go up either way.”
SLOW CLIMATE CHANGE, OR THE OPPOSITE?
New renewables also would be at risk because the project’s direct-current design restricts in-state generators – such as wind or solar farms – from hooking up economically. At the very least, NextEra’s consultants say, the PUC should order CMP/Avangrid to switch to an alternating-current line. That would provide the on-ramps for wind and solar projects in western and central Maine.
A broader issue is whether New England Clean Energy Connect would help slow climate change. If the power comes from a hydro dam, the answer would seem to be yes. But opponents say it’s not that simple.
James Speyer, a senior adviser to Energyzt Advisors, said his analysis for 2023 indicates that total regional carbon emissions would actually increase by 384,252 metric tons, equal to the emissions from 80,000 cars. That’s because Hydro-Quebec isn’t building new dams, he said, but shifting sales from New York and elsewhere to earn more money through the contract with Massachusetts. To make up the power difference, the other areas will need to fire up less-efficient gas units, or even coal plants, he said.
“Hydro-Quebec is very clear,” Speyer said, “that it intends to use existing hydroelectric resources to supply energy to Massachusetts via NECEC. … In effect, Hydro-Quebec will have to reduce sales in other markets in order to meet its NECEC supply obligations. This means that more than one-quarter of its current and anticipated export levels would have to be dedicated to NECEC, forcing other markets to backfill with other generation to offset reduced sales from Quebec.”
Environmental groups that often are at odds with power plant owners have piggybacked on the testimony.
“The testimony finds that because Hydro-Quebec is not actually producing any additional hydroelectricity, there are no greenhouse gas savings,” said Dylan Voorhees, climate and clean energy director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine. “This displacement might even cause dirtier plants to operate in New York or elsewhere.”
Voorhees also picked up on the negative impact on in-state renewable development, including the potential for offshore wind, which he said could create greater economic benefits for Maine.
He said: “With Maine seeing few economic benefits, no evidence of climate benefits, and threats to in-state economic activity, we have to ask ourselves why we should accept the environmental harms this project would impose on our state simply to line CMP’s pockets?”
Similar concerns were voiced by the Conservation Law Foundation.
“In order for NECEC to be approved,” the group said, “CMP must demonstrate that it will not negatively impact these existing resources and that it won’t stifle Maine’s clean energy potential. To date, CMP has failed to do so.”
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