FARMINGTON, Maine — Central Maine Power Co. was dealt a major blow Tuesday when voters backed a question aiming to kill its $1 billion hydropower corridor in a move that will rock the regional energy market and spur more legal wrangling.
The “yes” side of Question 1 had 59 percent of votes to the “no” side’s 41 percent when the Bangor Daily News and its election results partner, Decision Desk HQ, called the race at 9:48 p.m. with 53 percent of precincts reporting unofficial tallies.
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The vote on the project has been nearly four years in the making. After a similar project was killed by New Hampshire regulators in 2018, the 145-mile corridor to bring Hydro-Quebec power to the regional grid through western Maine emerged as Massachusetts’ best hope to fulfill a massive clean-power request. But CMP’s reputation got in the way.
Tuesday’s election followed customer service scandals that helped land CMP at the bottom of J.D. Power’s national utility approval ratings for three years. It spent a record-breaking $42 million trying to fight that tide. Question 1 proponents harnessed grassroots anger, but their campaign was funded by fossil-fuel interests clinging to market share.
Opponents of the project celebrated after the BDN call on Tuesday night, saying their victory was the result of volunteers rallying to gather more than 70,000 signatures during the pandemic after their first question was defeated.
“At the end of the day, we did our job, and we made a difference at a time when the state of Maine needs to decide what it’s going to be when it grows up,” said Tom Saviello, a Wilton selectman and a leader of the Yes on 1 efforts, shortly after the polls closed.
The question backed by voters Tuesday may not be the final word on the project. A similar anti-corridor question was struck down in 2020 by Maine’s high court, which ruled that it unconstitutionally usurped power given to regulators. CMP could challenge the new law on those grounds or argue that the $350 million it has already spent should entitle it to continue. In the meantime, the vote may lead Massachusetts to consider other projects.
CMP’s political committee, Clean Energy Matters, issued a statement on Tuesday teasing that legal fight, saying it believes the referendum was unconstitutional.
“With over 400 Maine jobs and our ability to meet our climate goals on the line, this fight will continue,” he said.
The response was immediate from opponents. The Natural Resources Council of Maine called on CMP to immediately halt construction on the corridor and for Massachusetts to find a different way to meet its renewable energy goals.
The new law will retroactively overturn a key corridor approval, ban construction of transmission lines in the upper Kennebec River region and require both chambers of the Legislature to approve such projects statewide by two-thirds votes. It also will subject infrastructure projects that cross public land to the same level of legislative scrutiny.
The corridor campaign has divided environmentalists and pitted energy giants against each other. Those rival companies spent more than $91 million on their campaigns since fall 2019 in a race that smashed the record for the most expensive referendum in Maine history.
Corridor backers had a huge financial edge coming into Tuesday’s contest, with CMP and allies spending $64 million, compared with the $27 million spent by competing energy companies in that same time frame. They were led by NextEra Energy, which owns a nuclear station in New Hampshire and an oil-fired plant in Yarmouth and spent more than $20 million.
The “yes” side was heavily propelled by the public’s frustration with CMP after years of customer service struggles, billing challenges and outages. Proponents questioned environmental benefits of the project and criticized a $240 million benefits package attached to the project as paltry, because the better part of it was spread over 40 years.
Opponents of the question couched it as a retroactive power grab imperiling the region’s renewable future. The CMP side wooed surrogates as diverse as Democrat Gov. Janet Mills, her Republican predecessor and 2022 opponent Paul LePage, the Maine State Chamber of Commerce and the Maine AFL-CIO.
Amy Bradford of Farmington, in the heart of the area where anti-corridor sentiment originated, did not think CMP had been honest about who would benefit from the project, saying it would largely help Massachusetts and Quebec. She also worried about the effect the project could have on Maine’s forests.
“They’re going to be stripping our woods, and the ratepayers aren’t going to be seeing any benefit,” she said.