FARMINGTON — Town officials are rethinking their endorsement of the New England Clean Energy Connect project, a controversial plan to build a Quebec to Massachusetts transmission line that would run through western Maine, including through Farmington and other parts of Franklin County.
At the urging of Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, selectmen are doing more research into the project, which they endorsed at the request of Central Maine Power in July 2017.
Saviello, who spoke to the board Tuesday night, said CMP, the developer of the project in Maine, is not offering the same economic benefits that have accompanied proposals for the same transmission line through Vermont and New Hampshire.
“The thing that really concerns me is in Vermont the company that proposed this line proposed $312 million for economic development,” Saviello said. “In New Hampshire, the company that was turned down (by the state) proposed $200 million. CMP has proposed crickets — zero dollars. That really bothers me as a senator for this district.”
John Carroll, project manager for New England Clean Energy Connect, said bids on the transmission line submitted in New Hampshire and Vermont were more costly and would have caused more disruption in communities and on public land, requiring the companies behind those proposals to offer up more compensation to offset the impact.
“The difference in cost is entirely based on how thoughtful the three projects were,” Carroll said. “Our project was carefully cited to maximize the existing infrastructure and minimize community impact. That’s reflected in the cost.”
CMP has received letters of support from 37 of the 38 communities along the corridor, which includes about 145 miles of new line to be built between Beattie Township on the Quebec border and Lewiston, as well as about 50 miles of line to be rebuilt from Lewiston to Pownal. The only community CMP hasn’t contacted yet is New Sharon.
Response to the project has been mixed, with Republican Gov. Paul LePage expressing support for NECEC, while the Natural Resources Council of Maine has opposed the project because of environmental concerns.
Saviello’s discussion with Farmington leaders and those in other Franklin County communities that could be affected comes as the senator and other lawmakers have clashed with the governor over the project.
LePage this week wrote a letter in support of NECEC that was sent to Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker and Philippe Couillard, the premier of Quebec, in response to a letter Saviello and three others sent to the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities expressing opposition.
The lawmakers, a bipartisan group of leaders for the committees on Environment and Natural Resources and Energy, Utilities and Technology, wrote in their letter they had a number of concerns, including the impact on Maine’s wildlife, forests and clean water.
But LePage, in his letter, said they gave the appearance there is widespread opposition to the project in the Maine Legislature.
“These four members represented only themselves and may now have to deal with reprimands for having suggested otherwise,” LePage wrote. “I, on the other hand, speak with the full authority of my office and believe that the NECEC will benefit all of us by bringing clean, Canadian hydroelectric power into our grid with minimal environmental or scenic impact in my State.”
In addition to Saviello, the lawmakers who sent the letter were Sen. David Woodsome, R-North Waterboro; Rep. Ralph Tucker, D-Brunswick; and Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham.
“It was just written as four individual legislators who happened to be on two committees,” Tucker said. “It was very clear in the letter we were not proposing any legislation, we were just concerned. The only person who can reprimand us is the speaker of the House or the Senate president if we have abused our authority, which we have not.”
In the letter, the lawmakers criticized CMP’s promise that the project would bring jobs and tax revenue to Maine, saying an economic study by the company was inflated to inaccurately project the benefits the state would see.
“We understand and appreciate that Central Maine Power has done significant outreach to local municipalities within the project corridor,” the letter said. “However, this outreach appears to have been conducted in revenue-starved municipalities and support for the project may be based solely on the idea that this is the only option available to them. We disagree.”
It also mentioned that CMP has not offered benefits on the same scale as the two proposals in Vermont and New Hampshire, which were also considered by Massachusetts as it sought a developer to bring a line down from Quebec.
A final concern raised in the letter stated the transmission line could suppress future development of renewable energy in Maine in part due to increased congestion on the transmission system.
Farmington Town Manager Richard Davis said selectmen raised few concerns about the project last July. In Farmington, unlike some other areas the transmission line would pass through, the project would only require a widening of the existing power line corridor, not cutting a new corridor. In addition, CMP has also said the line will add to the tax base and generate additional tax revenue for the town.
Davis said selectmen are in a “wait and see mode” and will do more research on the project before officially considering revoking their endorsement.
“Certainly (more economic benefits) would be helpful,” Davis said. “But I think maybe the larger issue is what are the environmental ramifications of this project and why aren’t the people of Maine going to benefit from reduced electrical costs?”
The project is expected to generate about $60 million a year in net income for CMP’s parent company, Avangrid. In order for it to get approval, Maine regulators must find that NECEC will benefit Maine residents.
None of the electricity will be sold in Maine and the nature of the line restricts in-state generators such as wind or solar farms from connecting, but CMP has said the project could save Maine ratepayers about $40 million a year by lowering wholesale electricity costs in New England.
The company has also said the line will generate about $18 million a year in new tax revenue along the corridor and will create almost 1,700 direct and indirect jobs during construction.
“I would hope that before they change their minds we would go back and visit with them,” Carroll said. “We like to think we’ve been a longtime partner with all of these communities, and we would want to speak to them to understand their reservations rather than just have them change their position on the project.”