The companies behind a proposal to build a 145-mile transmission line to send hydropower from Quebec to Massachusetts would dole out $258 million in Maine over 40 years if Central Maine Power wins permission to build the line through the western part of the state.
The payout is identified in confidential documents drawn up by stakeholders in a permitting case before the Public Utilities Commission. The documents, obtained by the Portland Press Herald, show that Maine electric customers would get $140 million to help reduce their bills and that low-income customers would receive an additional $50 million over the four decades.
The documents were circulated Tuesday during a meeting of stakeholders at the PUC, the lead agency considering the merits of the New England Clean Energy Connect project proposed by CMP parent Avangrid Networks and Hydro Quebec. The agency is expected to make a decision on permitting by the end of March or early April.
The Maine project also would include a smorgasbord of benefits aimed at appeasing environmental advocates and residents who live near the planned power line corridor. They include:
• $15 million over five years to upgrade fiber optic broadband capacity in western Maine;
• $15 million for a fund to expand the use of efficient heat pumps;
• $15 million for electric vehicle charging stations;
• $5 million for host communities in Franklin County to spur economic development, marketing and other projects.
Also in the package is money to mitigate wetland impact; grants for vocational education and needy students; funds for an organization that promotes tourism and recreation in the area; and other considerations for the Passamaquoddy tribe, which owns land in the area.
Taken together, this proposed financial package sends out $258 million in actual cash over the 40 years. The project’s developers say that when the environmental attributes of the hydroelectricity are taken into account, plus the upgrades to CMP’s existing transmission line to handle the new power, the benefits to the state increase to $769 million.
CMP previously offered $22 million for conservation efforts, but noted there would be tax benefits of $18 million to host communities and the creation of 1,700 jobs over the six-year planning and construction phase of the line.
The $258 million is $17 million more than another utility company offered in a competing project sited through New Hampshire that dissolved last year.
The proposed agreement considered Tuesday is between CMP, the Office of Public Advocate, the Industrial Energy Consumer Group, Western Maine & Rivers Corp., the Conservation Law Foundation, the Acadia Center, the city of Lewiston, the Maine State Chamber of Commerce and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
It’s unclear whether all the parties will sign the agreement or whether the proposal will be modified in the days ahead. Another round of talks is set for Tuesday.
If an agreement is formally reached, it will be filed with the PUC and become a public document to be considered as regulators debate whether to issue a permit for the project.
Because the settlement talks are confidential, participants are not supposed to discuss details.
Reached Wednesday, Barry Hobbins, the Public Advocate, said he would only express his view that the agreement contained a “satisfactory threshold” of benefits.
“I wouldn’t be a party if I didn’t think it was in the best interest of ratepayers,” Hobbins said.
Two metrics for the decision are whether there’s a demonstrated need in Maine for the $1 billion project, and to what extent Mainers will benefit from it. None of the power will be sold in Maine and the technical design of the line precludes new Maine-based wind and solar farms from easily hooking into it.
The settlement, if it concludes successfully, isn’t binding on the PUC’s decision. But it carries weight by showing that CMP and major parties in the case agree on certain benefits that they believe make the project worthwhile for Mainers.
Notably absent from the proposed agreement are other stakeholders that oppose the project. They include the Natural Resources Council of Maine, the Say NO to NECEC citizen group and the New England Power Generators Association, which has members with power plants in Maine.
“Instead of building a massive power line that won’t benefit Maine people,” said Dylan Voorhees, clean energy director at NRCM, “we should be accelerating the development of home-grown renewable energy projects that will strengthen the state’s economy, create new jobs, and deliver real benefits to the climate and our environment.”
The citizen group has been clear in its opposition to any deal.
“I would like to remind our Public Advocate and other PUC intervenors,” Say NO to NECEC spokeswoman Sandra Howard said, “that there is no amount of short-term money worth the permanent destruction to the one of the last contiguous forests in the world. Maine’s brand, recreational tourism, native brook trout habitat, and way of life should not be discarded for an elective transmission upgrade that will not improve reliability for Maine’s ratepayers.”
Also critical of the proposed settlement was Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, a frequent CMP adversary who co-chairs the Legislature’s energy committee. He has proposed creating a consumer-owned power authority that would take over CMP’s transmission and distribution system.
“Today’s proposal is an insult to the people of Maine, especially those whose lives and livelihoods depend on the rugged beauty of our western mountains,” Berry said. “This is only the latest example of CMP putting its overseas shareholders ahead of Maine electricity customers.”
CMP is owned by Connecticut-based Avangrid Inc., which in turn is owned by Iberdrola, a huge, international power company in Spain.
CMP has estimated the $1 billion project will bring more than $18 million a year in property tax revenue in the three counties the project will run through, as well as construction jobs, lower energy costs and enhanced opportunities for broadband internet. But increasingly, CMP has struggled to gain public support for the project in the face of growing opposition from local residents and some environmental groups.
That has compelled the company to essentially sweeten the pot and offer a benefits package on par with what was on the table for the now-moribund Northern Pass project, a prior attempt to build a transmission line from Quebec to Massachusetts through New Hampshire. Despite that $241 million package, Northern Pass was rejected last year by a siting commission in that state.
The Maine documents also offer a rare glimpse at Hydro Quebec’s financial commitment. The provincial utility has spent billions of dollars building new dams, and it needs to export the power to be profitable. It has been working for years with partner utilities in an attempt to site new transmission routes to markets in New York and New England. It sees the CMP project as crucial to those plans.
The documents show Hydro Quebec stepping up in a bid to get the Maine project approved. Among its investments would be a $10 million broadband fund, in consultation with ConnectME; $10 million to help set up an electric vehicle charging network; and $10 million for heat pumps.
The document notes that the agreement will be binding upon approval of the project by the PUC and is conditioned on achieving commercial operation.
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