Next up, Central Maine Power

Next up, Central Maine Power

Mass. drops N. Pass, opts instead for Maine transmission line

MASSACHUSETTS SHIFTED GEARS on its multi-billion-dollar clean energy procurement Wednesday, dropping Northern Pass because of the project’s failure to obtain one last, key permit from the state of New Hampshire and opting instead for a Maine utility that has yet to obtain any of its key permits.

Officials offered few details of the decision-making process, but they said the goal now is to negotiate a contract with Central Maine Power by April 25. The contract would then go to the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities for approval; at that point, details such as price and timetable are expected to be revealed.

In broad terms, Central Maine Power’s project is similar to Northern Pass except it would import hydro-electricity from Quebec into New England via a transmission line through Maine rather than through New Hampshire. Northern Pass, backed by Eversource Energy, became practically a household name in New England because of opposition to its route through the White Mountains. Until now, few have paid attention to the route of the transmission line proposed by Central Maine Power, a subsidiary of Avangrid Inc. of Connecticut.

“A lot of people weren’t giving it much attention because the expectation was the contract was going to Northern Pass,” said Greg Cunningham, a vice president at the Conservation Law Foundation. “They’re now paying attention.”

The Conservation Law Foundation opposed Northern Pass for ecological and aesthetic reasons. Cunningham said the organization is in the early stages of its review of the Central Maine Power project, but he said a few issues have emerged already.

Cunningham said the proposed route of the transmission line would take it over the Kennebec Gorge, which raises aesthetic concerns and could have potential bird impacts. He said the project would require 50 miles of new right-of-way through virgin forest and the transmission line would travel through the Kennebec River valley not far from the Route 201 scenic byway.

“This is a remote part of Maine, so it doesn’t have the degree of exposure and cachet as the White Mountain National Forest,” Cunningham said. “It’s a different area, but it’s wilder and more remote and arguably more precious.”

Central Maine Power is in the process of obtaining needed permits from the federal government as well as the state of Maine. The project must win approvals from the Maine Public Utility Commission, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, and the Maine Land Use Planning Commission. The permitting process is in the early stages.  The company said on Wednesday that it expects to receive state approvals later this year and final federal permits in early 2019.

Completion dates will depend on the permitting process, but the transmission line is not likely to be finished before the end of 2022. Northern Pass, before it was derailed, had indicated it could be up and running in 2020.

Northern Pass and TDI-New England, both of which sought to import hydro-electricity from Quebec, were much further along in the vetting process and, as a result, had ponied up lots of money to mitigate the potential economic and environmental impacts of their projects. Central Maine Power hasn’t got to that point yet, which may partially explain why the company said its project would cost $950 million while the other two put the price tag around $1.6 billion.

Once a contract is worked out with Central Maine Power and a price agreed to, the company will have to absorb any new costs it incurs as it moves through the permitting process.

“CMP has successfully built other large-scale projects here in our home state, so we’re confident we can meet our commitments,” said Doug Herling, president and CEO of Central Maine Power, in a statement.

The decision to drop Northern Pass and go with Central Maine Power was made by the state’s three utilities, who were charged under state legislation to negotiate a contract. Eversource Energy was one of the utilities, and also the driving force behind Northern Pass. Officials say all decisions of the utility group were made by consensus.

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Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

In a statement, Eversource Energy said it understood the decision to terminate the conditional selection of Northern Pass. “Despite recent delays, we continue to believe that Northern Pass is the best project for the region and New Hampshire, and we intend to pursue all options for making it a reality,” the statement said.

The announcement of the decision to drop Northern Pass and move on to Central Maine Power was made in a one-paragraph statement on a state website with no explanation. Baker administration and some utility officials issued statements about their commitment to pursuing clean energy. CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story said the Baker administration and utility officials declined comment.