NECEC debate comes to Farmington with hearings, town meeting vote scheduled

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Wilton residents vote to pull the town’s support of the New England Clean Energy Connect on March 5.

FARMINGTON – Beginning on April 1, five days of public hearings will be held on the University of Maine at Farmington campus regarding the New England Clean Energy Connect project: a 145-mile long Direct Current transmission line stretching from the Canadian border to a new converter station in Lewiston. The Maine Department of Environmental Protection and Land Use Planning Commission will be receiving testimony from the public, marking the latest opportunity to be heard on a $1 billion project that has raised strong emotions in western Maine.

Following the passage of An Act Relative to Energy Diversity in 2016, Massachusetts issued a request for proposals to provide 9.45 terawatt hours of clean energy. Forty-six bids were submitted; 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 either new corridor or improvements to infrastructure, with 72 percent of the project making use of existing transmission corridors. A total of 145 miles of the project would link a substation in Lewiston to the Canadian border through a direct current transmission line with 1,200 megawatt capacity. Roughly 73 percent of that would follow preexisting transmission lines. The remaining 44 miles of the project would impact alternating current infrastructure south of Lewiston and from Winslow down to Wiscasset.

The project would enter northern Franklin County in Beattie Township, passing through Lowelltown and Skinner Township before crossing into 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.

Local reaction

In Franklin County, the initial public reaction was largely positive. A number of towns and the county commissioners voted to support the project, citing projections of increased property tax revenue, job creation during construction and lower electricity costs in Maine, as the state is part of ISO New England, the regional transmission authority for the New England states.

Locally, concerns began circulating in mid-2018, largely stemming from reviews of NECEC and other, rejected bids submitted in response to the Massachusetts RFP. Former Sen. Tom Saviello of Wilton approached local boards, requesting they reconsider previously-issued letters of support on the basis that he said NECEC’s impact had exceeded the benefits.

An informational meeting held at the Mt. Blue Campus on July 16 drew more than 100 people. One of the most frequently asked questions revolved around the project’s lack of financial incentives, specifically referencing proposed projects in New Hampshire and Vermont. At that point, CMP had put forward a roughly $22 million package of investments and land transfers to benefit the Kennebec River Gorge–a region that NECEC will cross through–but no further statewide incentives. Instead, President Doug Herling argued that CMP had spent years designing 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.

Since that meeting, support and resistance to the project has divided communities and organizations. More than a 100 Wilton residents recently voted to instruct that town’s selectboard members rescind support and oppose NECEC, for example, while the Jay Board of Selectpersons voted to continue supporting the project in November 2018.

Farmington residents will vote on the town’s NECEC stance at the annual town meeting on March 25.

Statewide debate

Negotiations between CMP, the Governor’s Energy Office, the Office of the Public Advocate and other stakeholders, including the Industrial Energy Consumers Group, the Conservation Law Foundation and the Acadia Center, yielded a settlement that concluded that NECEC would not be funded by Maine electricity customers. That settlement included $258 million in incentives, ranging from $140 million to lower electric rates and $50 million support low-income customers, over 40 years; funds for heat pump installations, electric vehicle charging stations and high-speed internet service. In Franklin County, $5 million would go toward supporting economic development, $4 million would go toward vocational programs and STEM-related programs in Franklin and Somerset counties, and $1 million would be earmarked for internships and UMF scholarships.

Gov. Janet Mills authorized the Governor’s Energy Office to sign onto the settlement. In a radio address released on March 1, Mills cited provisions of the settlement, but also NECEC’s impact on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

One of the biggest points of contention between project supporters and those opposed to NECEC is that impact. CMP and organizations in support of the project quote an estimate by London Economics–the firm hired by the MPUC to evaluate the project–that NECEC would reduce carbon dioxide emissions in New England by 3.6 million metric tons annually. Opponents disagree with that assessment, accusing project supporters of “green washing,” a term that refers in this context to the purchase of electricity generated via conventional means which is then presented as green energy.

CMP’s claims of carbon dioxide emission reductions are based off the energy needs of New England and preexisting sources of electricity that are scheduled to be retired, including the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth, Mass., and the coal-fired Brayton Point Station in Somerset, Mass. Those and other retirements will force New England to generate electricity through alternative sources, CMP director of communications John Carroll said. While wind and solar options should continue to be developed, Carroll argued, they couldn’t produce consistent “base load” power like nuclear, hydro and natural gas.

Providing roughly 10,000 gigawatt hours annually, NECEC would replace some, but not all, of that retiring base load supply, Carroll said. Given a lack of public support for new nuclear plants, the other realistic option to provide the New England grid with a new source of base load power was natural gas, Carroll said, probably provided by the Marcellus Shale field.

“If you’re turning away from hydroelectric power, you’re saying that your base load will provided by gas or oil,” Carroll said.

Sue Ely, the Natural Resources Council of Maine’s staff attorney and Climate and Clean Energy policy advocate, said that depicting Hydro-Québec as the only way that the New England grid could meet its future electricity demands is overly simplifying a complicated issue. The NECEC line would lock New England into 40 years in what Ely characterized as an old, inflexible model: a single line feeding into the grid, rather than generating green energy within New England.

There was no contractual guarantee that the project would provide Massachusetts power companies with entirely green energy, above and beyond what was already flowing into the grid, Ely argued. That’s an issue that the Massachusetts Attorney General has also raised to that state’s Department of Public Utilities, Massachusetts’ equivalent of the Maine Public Utilities Commission. Instead of generating the electricity beyond contractual minimums via hydro power, Ely said, Hydro-Québec could purchase electricity generated at a natural gas plant, effectively rerouting hydro-produced power out of another market to New England.

“There’s just no guarantee that we’re getting clean energy from this deal,” Ely said.

Hydro-Québec director of communications Serge Abergel said that he was bewildered by claims that Hydro-Québec couldn’t provide the electricity to empower NECEC. The company’s network–mostly hydro, with some wind–was oversized for Quebec’s needs thanks to a 20-year build up that occurred alongside a development slowdown in the province. Currently, the company is exporting more than 30 terawatt hours: roughly half to New England, a quarter to New York and the remainder divided between Canadian markets beyond Quebec.

The company maintains 63 generating stations and 28 reservoirs, all of which Abergel said are now effectively full, at 98 to 99 percent. At this point, Abergel said, Hydro-Québec was facing a “sell it or spill it” decision every time it rains.

“These surpluses have become significant issue,” Abergel said. In 2018, he said, Hydro-Québec spilled–that is, released water that bypassed its turbines–enough water to generate more than 10 terawatt hours of electricity. This potential capacity, something that Abergel said would only grow as roughly 300 older turbines were replaced by newer models, made accusations of green washing implausible, the spokesperson said.

“It makes absolutely no sense why we would be buying something that we’re spilling down the river,” Abergel said.

Ely questioned the use of spillage figures to buoy Hydro-Québec’s arguments; dams spill water for different reasons at different times, she said. Spillage could be concentrated during the months of high rainfall, for example, when the NECEC project calls for steady electricity exports year-round. Assumptions made by those studying the project have included high rainfall totals and a relatively low continuing growth rate in Quebec, Ely said. She noted that Canadian newspapers covered requests made by Hydro-Québec in January to Quebec consumers to reduce appliance and heating use–the majority of Quebec homes rely on electric heat–to prevent the company from purchasing electricity from other power grids.

The Maine State Legislature has taken up the emissions issue with Sen. Brownie Carson (D – Harpswell), a former NRCM executive director, submitting LD 640, Resolve: To Require a Study of Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reductions from the Proposed Central Maine Power Company Transmission Corridor. That would order the Maine Department of Environmental Protection to issue a report prior to June 1, 2019 to the Legislature and the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities regarding the “total net effect of greenhouse gas emissions” throughout New England and beyond.

Ely and the NRCM have other issues with NECEC beyond the emissions debate. Grid congestion at the Lewiston station and at the Maine/New Hampshire border concerns opponents. Reducing the amount of available headroom, even with some upgrades in Lewiston and further south, could result in new Maine projects being left without the means to transport their product. Local energy projects represented a better deal for Mainers than a transmission line, Ely said, in terms of infrastructure investment and job creation. She said that Maine could lose future opportunities to leverage in-grid solar, wind or battery improvements in exchange for what she termed as a slug of energy, pumped into a stringy Maine grid for 40 years.

Between supporters and opponents, the impact of NECEC on Mainers’ electric bills is also up for debate. CMP’s projection predicted a $40 million reduction each year over a 20-year period, while London Economics pinned that number at $17 million. The difference in the estimates, Carroll said, related to differences in the models and the estimated cost of natural gas over the next 20 years. In any case, he argued, NECEC would introduce a cheap source of power to the bid stack pricing method used by NE-ISO; megawatts produced via hydro would replace expensively-produced megawatts from natural gas. Opponents have been dismissive of the potential electricity bill reductions, saying they’ll represent a few cents on the average rate payer’s bill.

Environmental impact debated

While lawmakers and policy experts have been debating emissions reductions, grid capacity and consumer savings, the local debate has largely focused on the 53 miles of new corridor, 12 of them in northern Franklin County. Opponents call the land undeveloped, part of one of the largest contiguous temperate forests in North America, and argue that NECEC will negatively impact deer migration, brook trout habitat and other animals, as well as businesses that rely on outdoor tourism. A number of opponents have suggested that CMP should have given more consideration to burying the line, along Route 201 for example.

“They chose a route that’s best for them,” Ely said.

CMP argues that it took special care to avoid sensitive areas and that the area that will be impacted is working timberland that is privately-owned. Carroll pointed to comments made by the Maine Forest Products Council, which represents the owners of more than 8 million acres of commercial forestland, to the DEP and LUPC in January. While not taking a position on the project itself, MFPC brought up its members’ concerns with public comments regarding the importance of the region to the public.

“… [A]ny evaluation of effects on the scenic character of private land from a proposed development should give maximum weight to the landowner’s position if the landowner has no objections to the proposed use. To reach any other conclusion would be to grant public rights on private property. MFPC members do not want regulators to consider views from their land in deciding whether the CMP project will have an adverse effect on the scenic character of the members’ land,” MFPC Executive Director Patrick Strauch wrote.

A decision by the MPUC on CMP’s request for certificate of public convenience and necessity is expected in early April.

The DEP will be holding a public hearing on NECEC on April 1 through April 5 at the University of Maine at Farmington campus. Topics of the DEP hearings will include: potential impacts to scenic character and existing uses; potential impacts to wildlife habitat and fisheries; the alternatives analysis; and proposed compensation for impacts and mitigation of impacts. The hearing will include daytime and evening sessions. Daytime sessions will be devoted to receiving evidence from the applicant and parties granted intervenor status. Members of the public may attend, but not participate in, the daytime sessions. The evening sessions will be devoted to receiving testimony from members of the public.

On Tuesday, April 2, DEP’s hearing will be held jointly with the LUPC, effectively the planning board for the Unorganized Territory. That hearing will focus on the LUPC’s review criteria related to potential impacts to scenic character and existing uses and the alternatives analysis.

A schedule of the hearing dates and times can be seen here:

Monday, 4/1/2019, North Dining Hall, 8:00 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. (DEP)
Tuesday, 4/2/2019, North Dining Hall, 8:00 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. (DEP & LUPC*)
Tuesday, 4/2/2019, Lincoln Auditorium, 6:00 p.m. – end time to be determined by Presiding Officer (DEP & LUPC)
Wednesday, 4/3/2019, North Dining Hall, 8:00 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. (DEP)
Thursday, 4/4/2019, Lincoln Auditorium, 8:00 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. (DEP)
Thursday, 4/4/2019, Lincoln Auditorium, 6:00 p.m. – end time to be determined by Presiding Officer (DEP)
Friday, 4/5/2019, North Dining Hall, 8:00 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. (DEP)
*The Commission will accept testimony from the parties beginning at 10:30 a.m.

The DEP and LUPC process will begin around that time with hearings on April 1 through April 5; CMP expects that process to take two-and-a-half months. After that, NECEC would need approval from the Army Corps of Engineers, possibly in September, and then a Presidential Order in December. CMP wants to begin construction in the first quarter of 2020. The project’s delivery date is Dec. 13, 2022.

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