Central Maine Power’s proposed NECEC transmission line has Mainers concerned about the cost and benefits for the environment and for the state’s economy. This issue lies at the root of what is arguably the most important piece of public policy of the day: energy and, by extension, carbon control.

Rep. Tina Riley

Most of New England shares our power grid, and its generators are businesses that sell electricity in complex markets. They are coordinated by the nonprofit ISO-NE and by system operators, including CMP, and are subject to some degree of state and federal oversight. Several large generators have retired in recent years and more are on their way out. ISO-NE predicts shortages that could cause rolling blackouts. Though the severity is disputed, it is clear that we must plan to add base load generation — reliable, always-on power — to the New England grid.

NECEC would bring needed power to the grid, paid for by Massachusetts. That the power is purchased by Massachusetts is of no consequence, because it would address a grid-wide problem. Maine does not want to buy that power because it is pricier than our rates, but the contract would be a good deal in Massachusetts, where prices are higher. It will create jobs, pay new taxes, and maybe lower prices a smidgen.

Even given those benefits, Mainers are forcefully saying no to the project. The “greenness” of the hydro source is debatable and the path of the transmission line will trample some environmentally sensitive areas. The line will be an eyesore as it cuts through the Maine wilderness. Power would be imported from a foreign nation, benefiting that economy more than ours, and reducing our energy independence as a region. And, CMP’s errors have destroyed the public’s trust.

Ensuring that we have enough power to meet demand is critical to our lifestyle, our economy and our security, but that does not come without a price. While Maine may be better off without the NECEC corridor, it does not serve our need to simply yell “no” to every option put forth. We must decide what burden we are willing to bear in order to meet our energy needs. To address our fragmented and unsatisfactory system, we need an energy plan that meets Mainers’ expectations for price, reliability and respect for the environment.

If we want to avoid large transmission projects such as NECEC, we need to produce electricity somehow. Distributed generation projects, like community-scale solar, biomass, or combined heat-and-power plants avoid the need for build-out. Investments in energy efficiency have helped as well, and larger investments would yield larger gains. Each type of project has its downside, whether price, reliability, visual blight or noise. Smaller scale projects and newer technologies require greater public or ratepayer expense, but their full range of benefits may make it worth the added cost. We need power and we must decide what we are willing to give for it, financially and environmentally.

Also under consideration is the proposal to bar investor-owned electric utilities from the state, bypassing the profit motive in favor of a customer-owned model, much like a credit union. CMP’s motivation to build the corridor is, of course, profit-driven. Would that utility listen more earnestly to the concerns of Maine people if it were motivated by the wishes of its owner-ratepayers, rather than the desire of investors across the globe for increased profits? Perhaps Maine would feel differently about NECEC if the profits went directly to electric rate reductions, instead going to investors who know nothing of its impact on Maine.

The extraordinary turnout for informational meetings and hearings about the corridor shows that folks feel strongly enough that they are willing to be involved in this process. I am pleased and proud of the response. But it is essential that we cast an eye to the future, to not just push back against an unpopular proposal, but to ensure that we make well-considered decisions about where we do want to go and how we want to get there. We need to make sure we are focused on what we can accept for Maine, not just on what we reject.

Rep. Tina Riley is a resident of Jay. She serves the towns of Jay, Livermore Falls and part of Livermore.