FARMINGTON – More than 100 people attended an informational hearing held Monday evening on the New England Clean Energy Connect, asking questions about the potential environmental, infrastructural and economic impacts and benefits of the proposed transmission line project.
The meeting was organized by state Sen. Tom Saviello and Wilton Town Manager Rhonda Irish to provide a forum for primarily Franklin County residents to have questions about NECEC answered by members of Central Maine Power associated with the project, including President Doug Herling. Selectpersons from towns the project passes through were in attendance, as were a number of members of the public with signs and stickers in opposition to the project.
The project was submitted by CMP, a subsidiary of AVANGRID, Inc., in response to a request for proposals made by Massachusetts to bring up to 9.45 terawatts of clean energy power into the state. NECEC was Massachusetts’ alternative if the Northern Pass Transmission project failed to acquire approval in New Hampshire by late March. That did occur, and CMP now has contracts with Massachusetts and Hydro-Québec to deliver the project by December 2022.
The $950 million project consists of 189 total miles of corridor, with 73 percent of the project making use of existing lines. A total of 145 miles of the project would link a substation in Lewiston to the Canadian border through a Direct Current transmission line. Roughly three-quarters of that would follow preexisting transmission lines. The remaining 44 miles of line would impact AC infrastructure south of Lewiston and from Winslow down to Wiscasset, to accommodate the increased load. The project would be paid for by Massachusetts ratepayers and Hydro-Québec.
The project would enter Franklin County in the north in Beattie Township, passing through Lowelltown and Skinner Township before entering Somerset County to the east. This section would be roughly 12 miles of new corridor, with that corridor maintained at 150 feet in width around the line after construction.
The NECEC reenters Franklin County in Industry at the Starks town line, traveling for 20.6 miles through six municipalities: Industry, New Sharon, Farmington, Wilton, Chesterville and Jay. An additional 75 feet would be cleared to make room for the DC transmission line, usually running parallel with the existing AC line. Steel monopoles averaging roughly 95 feet in height would support the 230 kilovolt DC line. In total, 176 poles are currently planned to be sited in Franklin County, including the northern section.
Benefits highlighted during a presentation by Herling and other CMP officials included an average of 1,700 jobs created each year of the five year project. Responding to questions from town officials, CMP said that it could not guarantee that Mainers would fill those positions. Herling did say that in the $1.4 billion Maine Power Reliability Project a few years ago, a number of contractors did hire Maine residents. While it was possible that the largest contractors would come from out of state, CMP officials added later in the meeting, subcontracted companies from Maine had been part of the MPRP.
The project would also provide $1.5 million in new property tax revenue in Franklin County, per CMP’s calculations. Specifically, utilizing 2016-17 mil rates and state valuation numbers, CMP projects an additional $467,000 in property taxes in Jay, an additional $463,000 in Farmington, an additional $141,000 in Industry, an additional $82,000 in New Sharon, an additional $52,000 in Wilton and an additional $37,000 in Chesterville. Another $300,000 would be generated in the Unorganized Territories.
CMP said that the project will also lower energy costs in Maine by $40 million to $45 million annually by injecting 1,200 megawatts into the regional grid.
Some town officials questioned if CMP would be willing to provide economic development support in Franklin County, and why Maine was not receiving benefit packages at the same level as projects in New Hampshire and Vermont, both of which included significant in-state expenditures. Herling said that CMP had designed the project’s path with the goal of minimizing the impact on the state, and therefore a substantial funding package had not been incorporated into the project. CMP officials said they were proud of the path they had chosen for the line, which represented five years of work.
“Every time we identified a resource based on field surveys, of which there were many, we’d work with the large landowners to avoid that,” Gerry Mirabile, CMP’s environmental permitting manager, said. CMP worked with four private landowners to acquire land for the new transmission corridor.
CMP has announced a memorandum of understanding with Western Mountains and Rivers Corporation, a nonprofit representing some interests in Somerset County. The MOU includes investments, including transferring land along the Dead River to the nonprofit, funding trail development and potentially a visitor center, in response to the company’s proposal to cross the Kennebec River. It isn’t yet clear if the line will cross over the river, the company’s preference due to the reduced cost, or under it, something that Mirabile said CMP isn’t certain is possible. A number of the signs in opposition to NECEC that were visible during the meeting referenced the Kennebec River Gorge, which is a whitewater rafting and tourist destination.
Thorn Dickinson, the CMP vice president of business development, said that one discussion that had cropped up in Franklin County was possibly leveraging the NECEC to provide access to Broadband Internet. CMP intends to run high-capacity fiber optic cable in the static wire, a line that protects the transmission lines from lightning strikes. Dickinson that he had been discussing with Saviello and others how to utilize that broadband to the region’s benefit. Saviello has been in discussions with CMP about the project on behalf of the county, having previously voiced concerns about whether NECEC included sufficient benefit for residents of Franklin County.
Herling said, in response to a question, that CMP’s anticipated revenue relating to NECEC would be available soon, after contracts between CMP, Massachusetts and Hydro-Québec became public within the next week or so.
A number of questions focused on the environmental impact, including brook trout, deer wintering yards and wetlands. CMP has been communicating with state agencies on some of these issues, officials said, providing the example of the project improving brook connectivity for trout by installing culverts, for example. In Franklin County, a total of 21.4 acres of forested wetland would become scrub-shrub wetland, basically eliminating trees above ten feet in height. Roughly 600 square feet of wetlands would be filled for poles.
Some residents questioned if the project would offset greenhouse gases or if it would simply redirect preexisting hydro generation capability to a new market. Dickinson said that Hydro-Quebec had new capacity coming on line over the next several years. CMP officials say that in addition to stabilizing prices, introducing the hydro power will help displace natural gas and, on colder days, oil. CMP has said that NECEC will reduce carbon emissions by more than 3 million tons.
A number of residents questioned if the project would make it more difficult for companies operating in Franklin County to create solar or wind projects, due to either the impact of putting 1,200 megawatts of hydro power into the New England market or reductions in capacity. CMP officials said the question was a difficult one to answer and that a survey had to be conducted before any large scale project went online.
NECEC drew comment from representatives of the Maine Renewable Energy Association and the New England Power Generators Association in a joint statement released Monday evening. The organizations took issue with the project’s reliance on Canadian-based dams rather than local sources and the potential impact of transmission congestion on Maine suppliers.
“If the Commonwealth of Massachusetts seeks to reduce its carbon footprint, there are many Maine-based generators who stand ready to provide that supply,” Jeremy Payne, Executive Director of Maine Renewable Energy Association, said “And notably, that supply will directly benefit our local and state economies with clean, indigenous sources.”
“Companies that own power plants in Maine have a hard enough time getting their electricity to southern New England without additional congestion problems – a problem which this project will do nothing to alleviate,” Dan Dolan, President of the New England Power Generators Association, said as part of that same statement. “Instead of increasing competition, this proposal tries to smother competition.”
The project requires approval through the Maine Public Utilities Commission, as well as Maine Department of Environmental Protection, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Land Use Planning Commission. A special Presidential Permit is also required, as the project will cross the country’s borders. Once overall state and federal permitting is complete, Dickinson said, CMP would approach towns for municipal permits as the construction schedule is set. Construction on the project would begin in the second half of 2019, with a project delivery date in 2022.