With the Central Maine Power Co. corridor stalled and in legal jeopardy, the Massachusetts energy regulators who hold the keys to the project are preparing alternatives in the event of its potential defeat.
Ten months ago in August, the head of the $1 billion hydropower corridor warned regulators that a nine-month construction delay would make it impossible to meet its end-of-2023 completion deadline. Maine voters rejected the project in a November move that halted construction with the sides still waiting for the state’s high court to issue decisions in two major cases.
In Massachusetts, which is commissioning the regional project as part of a massive clean-power plan, Gov. Charlie Baker’s energy office noted in a June report that while the corridor is a “critical component” of the state’s energy future, it will need more renewable power to reach a goal of net-zero emissions by 2050.
Both that and delays on the project have Massachusetts policymakers starting to look harder at a range of potential alternatives, including a newly proposed transmission line through Aroostook County that has been pitched as a Maine-centered electricity project but may become a much bigger deal in the New England energy picture.
“We would love to have the power from Quebec,” Massachusetts state Rep. Jeffrey Roy, D-Franklin, who co-chairs the Legislature’s energy committee, said. “But it’s up to the Maine supreme court at this point. We’re all anxiously awaiting this decision.”
Roy underscored that his state is weighing options around how to diversify its power mix — including a heavy focus on offshore wind — out of a need to explore all alternatives and not simply because of project delays.
The commonwealth has been stymied since it passed a law in 2016 allowing the state to purchase more electricity from renewable resources. Its first attempt, a collaboration between Hydro-Quebec and Eversource of New Hampshire, died after a panel in that state denied the proposal in 2018, a move upheld by New Hampshire’s high court.
A Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources spokesperson said the office was continuing to monitor the Maine court cases over the legality of the November referendum and state land leases granted for the project.
Baker’s plan also noted pursuing transmission to other resources in neighboring states would be the “next most affordable option” — and that replacing the contracted amount of energy from NECEC could require an additional 8 gigawatts of ground-mounted solar arrays.
But Maine energy is not out of the running. Roy said the state is considering a northern Maine transmission line connecting renewables to the New England grid as authorized by the Legislature as a potential alternative. One of the proposals, Maine Power Link, would generate 1,200 megawatts, the same amount NECEC is expected to create.
The specifics around that line will not be known until at least November, when the Maine Public Utilities Commission selects a bid. But Public Advocate William Harwood said regulators would set the price of energy, and Massachusetts would then likely need to seek its own approval to buy electricity from it. The two states will likely need to negotiate a contract.
“If the Supreme Court puts a nail in this project, then the [northern Maine] proposal starts to look a lot more interesting,” he said.
The Maine Power link is so far intended to respond to Maine electricity customers’ needs, said Marie Berninger, the business development director at New York-based Con Edison Transmission. She declined to say if Massachusetts had expressed interest in the project.
The corridor faces both existential and practical challenges. Depending on how the rulings come down, delays could be exacerbated or the project could be nixed altogether. In the Franklin County town of New Sharon, CMP and its allies have already had to reapply for a permit to build through the town after it expired because work had not been completed.
Getting construction back online will require restarting work with several companies involved and mobilizing hundreds of workers, said Lynn St-Laurent, a spokesperson for Hydro-Quebec, which would supply the power to the Maine line. But the company was not concerned that the project would face major delays.
“We are putting every effort towards our project management strategy to be able to deliver this project by HQ and NECEC Transmission’s targeted 2024 commissioning date,” she said.
Massachusetts proponents are still hopeful the project will come through. But the mood on Beacon Hill toward Maine seems to have soured after the November vote, according to Assistant Massachusetts Senate Majority Leader Mike Barrett, D-Lexington.
He said there are few options that could replace the project outright, although the state is exploring them, calling the November vote here a “slap in the face” to Massachusetts residents who spend money supporting Maine’s tourism industry.
“I personally am a great fan of your state — or was,” he told a reporter. “But my enthusiasm has significantly waned.”