Mass.-financed power line in Maine is a mess
Rejected by voters, project pursues court, regulatory options
AFTER A DAY-LONG Zoom hearing Monday on the proposed transmission line carrying hydroelectricity from Quebec into Maine, there is only one conclusion: What a mess.
The transmission line, designed to bring power from Canadian hydroelectric producer Hydro-Quebec to the New England electric grid through a converter station in Lewiston, Maine, is being paid for by utility customers in Massachusetts to help the state meet its climate change goals.
It’s the second attempt by Massachusetts to obtain power from Hydro-Quebec. The first attempt failed in early 2018 when New Hampshire regulators rejected a power line running through the White Mountains. Massachusetts then shifted to the second-place finisher in its hydroelectricity sweepstakes – a project called New England Clean Energy Connect, which successfully navigated Maine’s regulatory process only to get shot down by Maine voters on November 2 by a 59-41 margin.
New England Clean Energy Connect, which is building the power line in partnership with Hydro-Quebec, insists the vote should be thrown out. The company says voters can’t pass a law that retroactively shuts down a project that had all of its permits. The company also revealed on Monday that it has spent $480 million so far on the project, which was supposed to cost about $1 billion in total. Gov. Charlie Baker said New England Clean Energy Connect and Hydro-Quebec – not Massachusetts ratepayers – are on the hook for any money spent so far.
On Friday, Maine Gov. Janet Mills, a supporter of the project, certified the vote, a decision that would allow the new law to take effect on December 19. Mills also asked New England Clean Energy Connect to halt construction while the courts and the state Department of Environmental Protection sort things out. The company agreed.
Two lawsuits are in play – the one seeking an injunction blocking the law approved by voters and another challenging the way a small amount of public land was leased to the project. A Superior Court judge ruled in August that the leasing process didn’t comply with state law; that decision is being appealed to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.
The day-long hearing on Monday conducted by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection is part of a process to decide whether the law passed by voters should trigger a revocation or suspension of the license previously granted by the agencyThorn Dickinson, the president and chief executive of New England Clean Energy Connect, said at the day-long hearing that further delays could be costly. Under the terms of its contract with Massachusetts, New England Clean Energy Connect is supposed to be in service by August 2024. The company has an option under its contract to extend that deadline by a year by paying a $10 million penalty, but after that the contract would expire.
Massachusetts can only watch and wait. The Baker administration’s strategy for reaching net zero emissions by 2050 relies on dramatically reducing the state’s reliance on fossil fuels in the production of electricity and using the clean energy to electrify the transportation and building sectors. The strategy took a hit last week when the governor’s cap and invest transportation climate initiative was scrapped after failing to gain traction among other northeast states. It would be another major blow if the hydro-power connection to Canada doesn’t get built or has to start over in some other location or some other state.