Prospects improve for CMP’s $950 million Western Maine power line plan

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The proposal to build a $950 million power line through western Maine received a major boost on Monday, when a decision by a regulatory board in New Hampshire mortally wounded the project’s competitor.

Action by the New Hampshire Site Evaluation Committee to delay its final decision on the Northern Pass transmission line likely will make an alternative proposal from Central Maine Power the default winner in a bid to supply vast amounts of hydroelectricity from Quebec to Massachusetts, according to a chief opponent of Northern Pass.

“I keep saying Northern Pass as proposed is dead and I think that’s right,” said Jack Savage, a spokesman for the Society for Protection of New Hampshire’s Forests.

The shifting fortunes of Northern Pass and CMP’s project, New England Clean Energy Connect, have been chronicled for months in media reports, but now seem to be coming to a head.

The result is placing new scrutiny on CMP’s plan to build a 145-mile line along a corridor it already owns. The line would run from Beattie Township, on the Canadian border north of Route 27 and Coburn Gore, through Farmington and Jay to Lewiston, where it would connect to the regional electric grid.

The line would cross the Kennebec Gorge, a scenic, 10-mile cut in the river traversed each summer by thousands of whitewater rafters. It also would bisect the Appalachian Trail.

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The project cost would be borne by Massachusetts electricity customers. Maine would benefit from construction jobs to build the high-voltage lines, and possibly from lower regional wholesale electricity costs. New England would also get a new source of clean, renewable energy to offset shutdowns of nuclear and fossil fuel plants.

DELAYS AND OPPORTUNITIES

A 2016 law in Massachusetts kicked off a process to solicit proposals to supply offshore and land-based renewable energy to the Bay State. Developers with 46 projects worth billions of dollars responded. In January, Massachusetts chose to negotiate with the developer of Northern Pass, a 1,090-megawatt line to carry power more than 190 miles from the Canadian border into New Hampshire. CMP’s proposal didn’t make the cut.

But in a surprise development, New Hampshire’s siting committee voted unanimously on Feb. 1 to deny a certificate for the Northern Pass project. After that happened, Massachusetts gave Northern Pass until March 27 to get approval. It also simultaneously began negotiating with CMP as a backup choice to bring Canadian hydro south.

The developer of Northern Pass, Eversource Energy, appealed the siting committee’s decision. On Monday, however, committee threw another curve: It voted to wait until its oral decision is put in writing later this month. That will delay further action and the committee might not fully take up the issue until May, according to a report in the Union Leadernewspaper.

The delay all but assures that Northern Pass can’t receive a go-ahead for its $1.6 billion venture by the March 27 deadline set by Massachusetts, Savage said.

“I don’t see any pathway forward for them,” Savage said.

The Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources, the lead agency in the bid process, has declined to publicly comment on the impact of New Hampshire’s decision.

Eversource Energy issued a statement Monday saying it hoped the siting committee’s decision was an indication that it would evaluate the legal criteria as well as the conditions that could provide a basis for granting approval.

SEEKING PERMITS

As the process plays out in New Hampshire, CMP is negotiating power contracts with three Massachusetts utilities. It plans to submit agreements to the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities by an April 25 deadline, according to John Carroll, a spokesman for Avangrid, CMP’s parent company.

New England Clean Energy Connect also will need several government permits. They include state approvals from the Public Utilities Commission, the Department of Environmental Protection and the Land Use Planning Commission. Federal oversight will include environmental reviews at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and international border crossing authority from the State Department.

CMP hopes to have state permits by year’s end, according to Carroll, and federal approvals in early 2019. Construction could start in 2019 and take two years, he said.

Northern Pass was bedeviled by public opposition to stringing towers and high-voltage wires through the White Mountain National Forest and other scenic areas. It proposed several concessions, including putting 60 miles of the 190-mile corridor underground, but was unable to satisfy key critics over a seven-year process.

CMP has taken a lesson from the Northern Pass experience, Carroll said. It has met with, and so far gained support, from 95 percent of the communities along the route, according to Carroll. They will share $18 million a year in new tax revenue, he estimated.

The company also has been meeting with rafting companies and other outdoor recreation interests about crossing the Kennebec Gorge. Each year, thousands of people take guided whitewater raft trips through that wild stretch of the Kennebec River, which features 200-foot granite cliffs. Drilling under the river to avoid stringing power lines over the gorge would add tens of millions of dollars to the project cost, Carroll estimated.

“But it’s not a deal breaker,” he said. “We’ve said that to the Somerset County commissioners, the rafters and the towns up there. What ends up being best in the communities’ view is what we’ll do.”

CMP also has a plan for minimizing the impact of crossing the Appalachian Trail, Carroll said.

New England Clean Energy Connect has strong support from Gov. Paul Lepage, who met with Massachusetts officials in mid-February after the initial Northern Pass setback.

And a regional environmental group that has been fighting Northern Pass is speaking in a conciliatory tone about the Maine power line.

“Every transmission project has environmental impacts that need to be evaluated,” said Emily Green, a staff attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation. “I wouldn’t consider the Kennebec Gorge a deal breaker. It’s a consideration we’re aware of and will consider in our evaluation.”

The power line has been strongly opposed by some anti-wind groups, who fear power from new wind farms in western Maine’s mountains could be exported to southern New England. But both Green and Carroll say that’s not a valid concern, because the power line is being designed to carry high-voltage direct current (HVDC), not the alternating current needed for wind connections.

This view is further substantiated by a case filing at the Maine PUC last week from NextEra Energy Resources, which is developing wind, solar and storage projects in western Maine. It says an HVDC line makes it “unclear whether NextEra’s development projects will be able to interconnect as proposed …”

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