Stalled Maine hydro power line raises concerns
Can region build infrastructure needed to address climate change?
WITH A PROPOSED Maine transmission line financed by Massachusetts electricity ratepayers heading to court, officials gathering at a conference in Boston on Thursday raised concerns about the region’s ability to build the energy infrastructure necessary to address climate change.
At a meeting of the New England-Canada Business Council, little was said about the stalled transmission line, but it was on everyone’s mind. Voters in Maine on Tuesday approved a ballot question that would block the project, which is already under construction.
The company building the transmission line went to court on Wednesday to challenge the constitutionality of the ballot question. The lawsuit argues that it’s illegal to change the rules retroactively to block a project that got underway after following all the rules and obtaining all the proper permits.
A key backer of the ballot question, the Natural Resources Council of Maine, responded on Thursday by asking the Maine Department of Environmental Protection to immediately halt all work on the transmission line.
While the legal theatrics played out in Maine, energy officials at the opening session of a two-day conference in Boston talked about the challenges they face trying to simultaneously decarbonize the production of electricity while also producing more electricity for use in decarbonizing the transportation and building sectors.
Jim Robb, the president and CEO of the North American Electric Reliability Corp., highlighted a number of challenges, but toward the top of his list is the inability to build energy infrastructure, particularly transmission capacity.
“Funding is not the issue. The issue is how you get projects sited and built,” he said.
Gordon van Welie, the president of ISO New England, the region’s power grid operator, said he worries about the energy supply chain. He said the region is moving quickly to develop solar and offshore wind power, but it continues to rely heavily on electricity produced from natural gas.
Van Welie said the region’s Achilles heel is the lack of an on-call clean-energy source that can be drawn upon when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing. Hydro-electricity from Quebec could be a partial answer, but right now the transmission line that could bring more of the power into the region is tied up in a messy fight in Maine.“This is the biggest unsolved energy problem in the region,” van Welie said.
Power produced using natural gas could continue to plug the gap, but it’s not an ideal solution. Using natural gas prolongs the use of fossil fuels and natural gas can fall into short supply during an extended cold snap when most of the fuel is diverted for heating and pipeline supplies tend to dry up. Even so, van Welie says, there aren’t many options.