Mass.-financed power line in Maine is a mess

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.

Central Maine Power, the company building the power line in partnership with Hydro-Quebec, insists the vote should be thrown out. The utility 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 Central Maine Power and Hydro-Quebec – not Massachusetts ratepayers – are on the hook for any money spent so far.

Central Maine Power’s corporate parent, Avangrid (the same company involved with the Vineyard Wind project off the coast of Massachusetts), filed a lawsuit the day after the election seeking an injunction preventing the law approved by voters from taking effect. Central Maine Power also kept cutting down trees to make way for the power line.

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 Central Maine Power to halt construction while the courts and the state Department of Environmental Protection sort things out. The utility 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 agency. 

Thorn 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.

BRUCE MOHL 

 

FROM COMMONWEALTH

Walsh charges dismissed: A judge dismissed all criminal charges against former Holyoke Soldiers’ Home superintendent Bennett Walsh and medical director David Clinton, ruling that five veterans who were the focus of the case could have come in contact with COVID before the two officials ordered the merger of two dementia units as the disease was spreading through the facility.

“There was insufficient reasonably trustworthy evidence presented to the grand jury that, had these two dementia units not been merged, the medical condition of any of these five veterans would have been materially different.” wrote Hampden County Superior Court Judge Edward McDonough.

— The decision was a setback for Attorney General Maura Healey, who had attempted to hold the two Soldiers’ Home officials accountable for merging the two units. In addition to ruling that no direct link existed between the merging of the units and contracting COVID, McDonough held that the caretaker law under which the charges were filed applied only to direct caretakers and not to managers or administrators overseeing care. Read more.

OPINION

Backs Mass General Brigham expansion: Marlborough resident Sharon Judd enthusiastically endorses the expansion of Mass General Brigham into Westborough, Westwood, and Woburn. Is there ever “enough” when it comes to health care choices?” she asks. Read more.

Child care: Chelsea Sedani, director of advocacy at Economic Mobility Pathways, pushes for legislation that would establish a radically different child care system. Read more.

FROM AROUND THE WEB

 

BEACON HILL

The Massachusetts House moves forward with a reopening plan for staff. (MassLive)

MUNICIPAL MATTERS  

A Hanson selectman is fined $5,000 by the state ethics commission for violating conflict of interest laws. (Patriot Ledger)

HEALTH/HEALTH CARE

Massachusetts averages 2,267 COVID cases a day over the weekend, amid a large spike in new cases. Despite that, Gov. Baker says residents should enjoy Thanksgiving this year. (MassLive

WASHINGTON/NATIONAL/INTERNATIONAL

Massachusetts could get even more federal aid under a new massive spending bill going through Congress. (Gloucester Daily Times)

President Biden renominated Jerome Powell for another four-year term as chairman of the Federal Reserve. (New York Times

ELECTIONS

A UMass Amherst poll finds public support for election reforms, like allowing mail-in voting permanently. (Salem News)

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

Boston labor leader Sean O’Brien, newly elected president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, says he’s determined to help revive the US labor movement and has a big ally in labor secretary – and fellow Bostonian – Marty Walsh. (Boston Herald

Draper Labs in Cambridge agrees to pay nearly $3.5 million in penalties for overcharging the US Navy. (MassLive)

Watertown-based Athenahealth, which makes health care software, is being acquired for $18 billion. (Boston Globe)

Retailers are expecting a 6 percent bump in sales over the holidays compared to last year. (MassLive

EDUCATION

State universities are poised to be big winners when the Legislature finally passes a federal stimulus spending bill, as both the House and Senate versions contain provisions providing matching funds to spur donations to the schools, the brainchild of philanthropist Bob Hildreth. (Boston Globe

Students are unhappy with how Worcester State University responded to a racial slur scrawled on a dormitory window. (Telegram & Gazette)

TRANSPORTATION

New wider bicycle lanes are unveiled on the Harvard Bridge that spans the Charles River. (Boston Globe)

MEDIA

Hedge fund Alden Global Capital makes a bid for Lee Enterprises, a newspaper chain that owns 75 dailies, including the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Arizona Daily Star, and the Buffalo News. Alden is known for its cost-cutting approach to newspaper management. (Poynter) Dan Kennedy faults Warren Buffet for selling his papers to Lee. (Media Nation)