2 key hurdles face Mass. power line to Quebec

Either one could undermine Bay State climate change plans

A PROPOSED power line bringing hydroelectricity from Quebec into New England via Maine faces two key hurdles in the coming months that could make or break climate change efforts in Massachusetts.

The power line project, called New England Clean Energy Connect, is being financed by Massachusetts electricity ratepayers. If built, it would deliver 1,200 megawatts of carbon-free electricity from Quebec and help Massachusetts back power produced using natural gas and other fossil fuels out of the region. The hydroelectricity from Quebec would also be firm, meaning it will be as reliable as the dams that produce it and not be subject to the vagaries of the air currents that drive offshore wind turbines. 

The first hurdle to the project comes up fast on Tuesday when Maine voters will decide the fate of a ballot question that would block the power line and possibly derail it permanently. Polls indicate Maine voters are nervous about climate change but even more wary of the power line, which many view as an unnecessary incursion into their state by Massachusetts. Editorial boards across the state have come out in support of building the 145-mile transmission line, but a poll in early September indicated half of Maine voters oppose it. 

The question is expected to be the most expensive ballot fight in state history, with opponents outspending supporters by a hefty margin. Supporters, however, have received significant financial support from a group calling itself Mainers for Local Power, which is bankrolled by three energy-producing companies – NextEra Energy Resources, Vistra Energy Corp., and Calpine Corp. – that stand to lose market share and significant revenues if the hydroelectricity from Quebec starts flowing into the region. 

The second hurdle facing the power line can be traced to a technical analysis of the project,  which concluded a circuit breaker at the nuclear-powered Seabrook Station in New Hampshire would need to be upgraded to accommodate the influx of electricity coming into the New England power grid from Quebec. 

Seabrook is owned by NextEra, the same company that is helping to fund opposition to the power line in Maine. Avangrid, the company building the power line in Maine, has agreed to cover the cost of the circuit breaker upgrade at Seabrook Station, but NextEra has dragged its heels, saying the project is more complicated and expensive than Avangrid says it is.  

It sounds like a simple power play by NextEra, but there are some indications the dispute is more complicated. According to Avangrid, NextEra has hinted its reluctance to upgrade the circuit breaker would go away if it received some sort of guaranteed price for a portion of its Seabrook electricity for the next 15 years. Could NextEra be worried that Seabrook might not survive if the Quebec-to-Maine transmission line comes online? The ramifications of that are serious because Seabrook is a key source of carbon-free electricity in New England. 

NextEra and Avangrid are at an impasse and Avangrid has appealed to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to step in and force NextEra to upgrade the circuit breaker when Seabrook is shut down for regular maintenance in early 2023, the same year the transmission line is due to come online.

Meet the Author

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 recent filings with FERC, Massachusetts officials implored the agency to intervene. “The fact that in this case a direct competitor of NECEC can thwart a major transmission project simply by refusing to negotiate and agree to commercially reasonable terms manifests a weakness in the interconnection process that must be addressed,” said Attorney General Maura Healey’s office in an October 7 submission. “Not only should the commission resolve this dispute as soon as possible, but it should create a process to resolve any such future disputes expeditiously.”

The Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources weighed in late last week. “While the commission’s determination may turn on the narrow question of whether a specific breaker may be classified as part of the NextEra Seabrook generating facility or is subject to NextEra’s open access transmission and interconnection obligations, the implications for this decision will have long-term consequences for the ability of the Commonwealth, New England, and the rest of the country to achieve emissions reductions necessary to mitigate climate change impacts,” the letter said.