Hydro-Quebec's Daniel-Johnson Dam, also known as Manic 5, is located about 130 miles north of the town of Baie Comeau, Quebec. Credit: Courtesy of Chris Lander

The debate about whether Central Maine Power should be able to pipe hydroelectricity from Canada to Massachusetts through a new 145-mile transmission line corridor in western Maine boiled over this week as opponents and proponents argued about issues near and dear to Mainers: jobs, affordable energy, nature’s beauty and climate change.

This week, parties on both sides of the issue held a series of meetings and other forums that presented Mainers with the key issues in the debate, and how they might affect individuals’ rates, property taxes and views out their windows.

The events set the stage for the first of four meetings starting Friday at the Maine Public Utilities Commission, one of the regulators that must approve the New England Clean Energy Connect project.

“The hearings that start Friday are to hear from and ask questions of the witnesses from the parties in the case,” said Harry Lanphear, the commission’s administrative director. The witnesses and intervenors formally applied for standing to comment during the case and present information for the commissioners to consider as they weigh whether to approve the $950 million project.

In the meantime, the PUC continues to receive a flurry of submissions on its website, with more than 100 public comments added since mid-September to total 438 as of mid-afternoon Thursday.

Following other hearings throughout November, the PUC expects to issue an Examiner’s Report on Dec. 7 about its findings. CMP must that prove the project provides a public benefit.

Credit: Courtesy of Ted Varipatis

Voices of support

Kicking off events this week, on Tuesday, six companies and groups formed a pro-NECEC coalition called the Mainers for Clean Energy Jobs. It was announced at Gaslight Park in Lewiston. The six inaugural members are the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, Associated General Contractors of Maine, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 104, Associated Builders and Contractors of Maine, E.S. Boulos Company, and Cianbro.

The coalition is backing the project, a collaboration between CMP and Hydro-Quebec, citing jobs and other economic activities the group believes it will create to benefit Mainers.

CMP has said the NECEC project will add $1 billion to Maine’s economy over the next 10 years, including Maine electric customers saving about $200 million in lower wholesale electric costs. The project is expected to create 1,700 jobs annually during its 20-year life and 3,500 jobs at peak construction, with a focus on western Maine.

“I support the New England Energy Connect Project,” Peter Vigue, chairman of the Cianbro Companies, told the Bangor Daily News. “I believe we should be focused on the future of the state of Maine. Natural gas, nuclear, oil and coal represent 80 percent of our current electrical generation in Maine and New England. None of that is renewable.”

“At the end of the day when you look at renewables like hydroelectric, wind, municipal waste and solar, they are only 20 percent of our renewable energy today … that won’t be adequate to fuel Maine’s future growth,” he continued.

Vigue said Quebec has abundant clean electricity to satisfy the needs of Maine and New England.

Credit: Courtesy of Hydro-Quebec

With the coming 200th anniversary of the state of Maine coming in 2020, the NECEC project is an economic initiative that will begin an economic drive for the next 200 years, he said.

Cianbro, which worked on CMP’s $1.4 billion Maine Power Reliability Program grid upgrade in 2010, also hopes to work on the NECEC project.

Ben Dudley, an independent consultant who organized the business coalition, said climate change, including the recently released Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s October report advocating immediate changes to mitigate it, spurred him to action on the NECEC.

Dudley is a former representative of Portland’s Munjoy Hill neighborhood in the Maine House of Representatives.

“We need to get serious about this now,” he said, adding the NECEC could help reduce greenhouse gas emissions linked to the warming climate.

“As a Mainer I’m excited because Maine could be a leader to bring clean energy and address climate change, and we could lower electricity prices,” he said.

For Tim Burgess, business representative for IBEW Local 104, the project is about jobs. He said Maine doesn’t have a lot of large electrical infrastructure projects, so union workers go to other states to work on large projects.

“I’m in this for jobs,” he said.

He said IBEW also plans to have an apprenticeship program if the NECEC project is approved. IBEW had apprentices on the Maine Power Reliability Program who ended up turning a training program into a career.

Burgess said he feels CMP is trying to blend the power lines in with the local terrain, although plenty of residents in the areas where the lines will pass through and other members of the public have disagreed with that viewpoint.

Environmental value questioned

Before the public hearing, on Wednesday morning several environmental groups released a 70-page report challenging the benefits CMP claims for the project and Hydro-Quebec’s stated plans for its hydroelectric supply. Energyzt Advisors of Boston prepared the report for the Maine Renewable Energy Association, National Resources Council of Maine and the Sierra Club.

The report came before the third and final public comment hearing at the PUC that evening in Hallowell. More than 100 citizens attended the meeting, many speaking against the project by citing questionable economic and environmental benefits to Maine, and potential damage to scenic resources.

Of the attendees, 59 were registered to speak, according to Lanphear, so their comments will be entered into the PUC’s official records.

Among the claims in the Energyzt report is that the NECEC project would not reduce carbon pollution and thus not have a benefit for climate change. It also states that the transmission line would redirect existing power generation from other markets into New England, potentially creating more carbon emissions in markets experiencing the shift.

“Climate change is the greatest environmental challenge facing Maine, the nation and the world,” said Sue Ely, clean energy attorney for the Natural Resources Council of Maine. “This report shows that CMP’s proposed transmission line would do nothing to reduce climate emissions. The study shows there will be just as much climate pollution created with or without this power line. Hydro-Quebec would merely be redirecting its existing electricity supply to Massachusetts instead of selling that power to other customers.”

The arguments have been presented before by the council and others, and will be part of upcoming discussions before the PUC.

Hydro-Quebec spokeswoman Lynn St-Laurent countered that the NECEC is an essential component of New England’s clean energy transition because it allows increases of hydropower deliveries into the region.

“Hydropower emits 50 times less greenhouse gases than natural gas; that’s just good climate policy,” she wrote in an email responding to an Bangor Daily News request for comment on the report.

She said Hydro-Quebec does have the capacity to supply the NECEC project, and that it will use its existing hydropower capacity, which includes 5,000 megawatts of new hydropower capacity brought on since the early 2000s, including the Romaine-3 generating station (395 MW) added in 2017.

The utility will soon add generating stations, including the Romaine-4 (245MW). Once that comes online, she said, it will also serve to increase the current energy output from the Romaine -1, -2 and -3 generating stations.

“The fact of the matter is Hydro-Quebec has additional energy available for Massachusetts. We have been adding capacity since 2003 to be in a position where we have the energy to respond to new clean energy needs,” she said.

“More generation will be brought online in coming years,” she added. “Had we waited for clean energy procurements to be launched before building, our additional units wouldn’t be ready today. It takes 10 to 15 years to build and design a hydropower generating station.”

A late change

In a major concession on Thursday, CMP seceded from a controversial plan that would have put aerial transmission lines near the scenic Kennebec River Gorge, instead saying it would bury the lines near the Kennebec River.

CMP’s President and CEO Doug Herling said Thursday that burying the lines has always been under consideration. The company plans to file the change with regulators.

“We believe this change may also encourage stronger support from those who appreciate the project’s benefits, but want to preserve the commercial and aesthetic value of the river as well,” he said.

The move came a day after the public hearing Wednesday evening and a day before the next phase of PUC scrutiny.

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Lori Valigra

Lori Valigra, senior reporter for economy and business, holds an M.S. in journalism from Boston University. She was a Knight journalism fellow at M.I.T. and has extensive international reporting experience...