Cianbro employees guide the top of the first pole of the NECEC hydropower transmission corridor onto its base in this Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021 photo. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Work has resumed on the $1 billion hydropower project through western Maine, but it still is not clear who will pay for the up to $500 million in additional costs caused by legal and construction delays, causing some supporters to become impatient.

Public Advocate William Harwood expressed concern Friday about the construction delays and projected cost increases for the project that is being spearheaded by Central Maine Power’s parent company Avangrid and Hydro-Quebec. A court in April cleared the way to restart the controversial project, which has won several major legal challenges, but obstacles remain such as who will foot the bill for the additional cost.

“Unfortunately, we must continue our dependence on natural gas while we await the decisions of Avangrid, Hydro-Quebec, the Massachusetts utilities and Massachusetts public officials as to the timing of the completion of the project and the final price of electricity to be delivered into the New England market,” Harwood said.

One snag now is renegotiating contracts with the companies in Massachusetts that will buy electricity from the project. The contracts will need to include the extra expenses caused by the referendum in Maine that halted the project in November 2021. The Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities approved those agreements among CMP,  Hydro-Quebec and the electricity distribution companies in Massachusetts in 2019.

necec corridor challenges

But the contracts must be renegotiated to consider the added costs, and Massachusetts lawmakers need to approve that. Despite House and Senate lawmakers including provisions in their spending bills to allow changes, a slimmed-down budget passed recently without them.

That means the project has resumed without knowing if or how the additional costs will be covered. Avangrid and Hydro-Quebec were not immediately available for comment on Friday.

That may explain the slow restart to the project, Robert McCullough, principal at energy consultancy McCullough Research in Portland, Oregon, said.

Work resumed on Aug. 3, but only 10 to 20 employees went back to work inside the Lewiston substation that will convert direct current from the line to alternating current for consumer use. There is no hard timeline for when work in the woods to install poles and wires will resume, a company spokesperson said earlier.

“It may simply be common sense, which is that they’ve won their case and they would like to say they are restarting, but they’re deciding not to invest major dollars until they understand what’s going to happen next,” McCullough said.

more corridor development pushback

Lawmakers in both branches of the Massachusetts Legislature said they believe the contract changes will eventually be approved, according to CommonWealth. The magazine quoted Rep. Jeffrey Roy, a Democrat who co-chairs the Legislature’s Telecommunications, Utilities, and Energy Committee, as saying the issue is going to be addressed. That could be through so-called informal sessions under which lawmakers continue to meet after technically adjourning there on July 31.

The ongoing hiccups for the project are concerning some of its backers. Harwood said his office has consistently supported the project because it has the potential to supply New England consumers with competitively priced electricity and help reduce Maine’s heavy dependence on natural gas for electricity. He urged the parties involved in the project to expedite it.

Massachusetts is committed to getting the language needed to revise the contracts so that the electric companies can recoup the extra costs from that state’s ratepayers, the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs said.

A spokesperson acknowledged it is an important step in completing construction and said the administration of Gov. Maura Healey is committed to working with the Legislature, project developers and utilities to assure the project is completed.

Lori Valigra, investigative reporter for the environment, 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...