John Carroll, the spokesman for the New England Clean Energy Connect project, said the substation on Larrabee Road in Lewiston will not change much if hydropower from Quebec comes to Lewiston before being sent to Massachusetts. Sun Journal photo by Daryn Slover

Editor’s note: This is the first of an occasional series looking at the impact of the proposed $1 billion electric transmission line through Western Maine.

LEWISTON — If it weren’t for a constant, deep hum emitted by a huge transformer that weighs as much as four blue whales, there wouldn’t be anything obviously going on at Central Maine Power’s $57 million substation at the end of Larrabee Road.

John Carroll, the spokesman for the New England Clean Energy Connect project, said 72% of the power line route uses an existing corridor. The corridor that would be built starts near The Forks and runs west to the Maine/Quebec border. Sun Journal photo by Daryn Slover

Nothing moves amid its vast array of electrical equipment, steel towers and cables except for the 345,000 volts whizzing invisibly through the lines at nearly the speed of light.

If the Spanish-owned utility company succeeds in winning final permission for a new transmission line to bring hydropower from Quebec through Western Maine, the Lewiston site will have twice as much electricity flowing through a few years from now.

All that new juice would arrive at a yet-to-be-built $250 million converter station on nearby Merrill Road, where the direct current from Canada would be transformed into the alternating current relied on to supply most users.

Lewiston would be the key hub in the New England Clean Energy Connect project, the one place in Maine that would unequivocally benefit from CMP’s controversial project, thanks mostly to the additional property tax revenue that would pour in every year from assessments on the new equipment slated to go in.

To put the additional money into context, the city sought $55.4 million in real estate taxes in its current budget. The $8.4 million yearly increase estimated by Maine Center for Business and Economic Research for Lewiston from the project’s completion would mean more than 15% in extra tax revenue.

City Administrator Ed Barrett said Thursday, “It would be a big help to us as a community.”

John Carroll is the spokesman for the New England Clean Energy Connect project. Sun Journal photo by Daryn Slover

“Without question, Lewiston is the winningest community as far as this project is concerned, and I think the impacts in town are very modest,” said John Carroll, the spokesman for the project.

The attorney handling the issue for Lewiston, Gerald Petrucelli, told the Public Utilities Commission the city “firmly believes that CMP’s decision to locate its converter station in a diverse and economically challenged community addresses serious issues of social equity by providing the community with greater fiscal ability to address the unique needs of our population.”

He said the economic benefit to the city and its residents would be “accomplished at no cost to the city and, as importantly, at no cost to any neighboring community or to the state” because the financial burden would fall entirely on ratepayers in Massachusetts and the power company in Quebec.

If the project comes to pass, how to use the money is something that’s bound to be on the city’s political agenda for years to come.

The extra cash for city coffers might bring lower property tax bills, but there will also be pressure to tap the additional money to provide better education and services for residents in a city that’s been hard-pressed to deliver them.

LEWISTON IS LINCHPIN FOR $1 BILLION PROJECT

Mike Kelson, a substation technician for Central Maine Power, locks the gate to the substation on Larrabee Road in Lewiston. Sun Journal photo by Daryn Slover

The proposal given initial approval Thursday by state regulators would funnel 1,200 megawatts of electricity every hour from Hydro-Quebec through a 145-mile transmission line that would stretch from Canada to Lewiston.

The idea behind it, spurred by Massachusetts officials seeking to minimize the climate impact, is to deliver electricity generated at dams near the Hudson Bay more than 900 miles to reach the grid that serves the Boston area.

But the linchpin for it is Lewiston because that’s where the new power would move from the new line to the existing grid, which sends electricity wherever it’s required.

To accommodate the additional electricity flowing into Lewiston, CMP would construct a Merrill Road facility and tie it through a new 1.6-mile transmission line to the seven-year-old Larrabee Road substation, which would also be upgraded. From there, the electricity would be stepped down to a lower voltage that would make it usable in New England’s wide-ranging power grid.

There are already a startling profusion of electrical lines going in and out of the area, some heading north toward the Kennebec River, some toward Auburn and some toward Lisbon. More would be added.

In short, electricity flowing through Lewiston would almost instantaneously supply power for consumers from Connecticut to Cape Cod Kennebunkport, everywhere the interconnected regional grid touches in six states.

The Larrabee Road substation in Lewiston. Sun Journal photo by Daryn Slover

The electricity pouring into the grid — from wind turbines to atomic fission plants — is delivered to users through a complex system of wires, conductors and costly equipment that aims to control it safely and deliver it where it needs to go.

One way to think of the project is to compare it to something more familiar: roads.

Maine now has an electrical superhighway that runs from New Brunswick to Benton, where it divides into two highways, one heading to Lewiston, the other to the former Maine Yankee nuclear power plant site in Wiscasset, which shut down in 1996.

At a handful of huge substations, including the one on Larrabee Road, the electricity can be pulled off the superhighway along major arterials that head to the Pine Tree State’s population centers.

Once the power reaches its destination, smaller substations can direct it to transformers along local streets and, ultimately, to homes and businesses that need it.

What CMP is eyeing in Western Maine is to add another superhighway, one that could bring power from Hydro-Quebec to Lewiston, the one spot in the state where, if the project comes to fruition, the two major lines of imported electricity would join.

Should the project move forward, more than 2 million megawatts of electricity would come together through the Lewiston facility.

HOW LEWISTON BECAME SUCH A HUB

The city started to become an energy center with the recognition by 19th-century industrialists such as Benjamin Bates that the falls on the Androscoggin River in Lewiston offered a chance to generate power to operate looms and other equipment.

At first, they simply used water power to turn ever-larger wheels that, in turn, could cause a whole bunch of smaller ones to move.

But when scientists and inventors including Thomas Edison learned to tame electricity in the final decades of the 1800s, experts quickly realized the potential of tapping the river to generate power. Dams started going up to harness that potential to create the juice required for a growing number of machines and lighting.

What pushed Lewiston to become something more, though, was the construction of dams on other Maine rivers after World War I.

To make it so new dams on the Kennebec River and elsewhere could tie into a growing electrical grid to the south, Central Maine Power built a 55-mile line from Madison to Lewiston through a corridor it purchased for the wires.

Going up at the rate of about a mile a day in 1930, the new line soon began transmitting 110,000 volts along a mostly straight corridor that shifted west only to pass close enough to Farmington to allow the Maine Consolidated Power Co. to buy electricity to serve Franklin County.

At the time, Maine had a law that prohibited any of the electricity generated from its rivers from being used outside the state, an issue that was among the more heated political topics for decades before its eventual repeal decades later.

As more dams were built, the line grew longer, but the power that flowed from them headed mostly to Lewiston.

Carroll called the line “a historic spine of the state’s hydro industries” that put Lewiston at its base.

Carroll said the Larrabee Road substation was added seven years ago as part of a $1.4 billion project to make Maine’s electrical grid more reliable. He said Lewiston was a key hub in that plan, too, in part because its region needed more power.

So when the company, working with Hydro-Quebec, tried to figure out a route to transmit electricity “from one of the great resources on the planet” near James Bay, it looked naturally at Lewiston, he said.

“We wanted to get as far south as we could” with a direct-current line that flows only one way, he said. Lewiston, Carroll said, was “the logical place.”

MORE POSSIBLE BENEFITS FOR LEWISTON

As part of the deal that convinced Gov. Janet Mills to endorse the project, its backers added some provisions that may also wind up helping Lewiston.

In the city’s March 1 filing with the PUC, it said the $50 million low-income customer benefits fund to help poor Mainers with weatherization and other household energy-efficiency programs is likely to assist some in the city.

It pointed out that more than one-fifth of the city’s residents have incomes below the poverty level and that it has some of the oldest housing in the state.

“Many of Lewiston’s residents would be eligible to participate,” according to the city’s filing, “which would lighten their economic burden, not only by reducing their energy costs for the current year, but also by home weatherization and installation of heat pumps or energy-efficient heating and appliances, reducing their energy costs for years to come.”

City officials also hailed the $140 million rate-reduction program included in the project, claiming it “will not only benefit the residents and businesses throughout CMP’s territory, but will provide rate relief for the city of Lewiston itself, which spent over $1.3 million on electricity last year alone.”

“Any rate relief for the city would potentially free up additional funds” that could be used for other services or to lower taxes, according to the filing.

In addition, the city said a $10 million broadband fund that Hydro-Quebec added to help implement internet access in host communities for the new line would benefit Lewiston in making high-speed service more available for low-income residents.

The city also cited the likelihood that the project would result in more jobs for its residents during construction and after the work is finished.

WHY THE NEW POWER LINE IS CONTROVERSIAL

It’s worth noting that there’s been almost no controversy about anything proposed for Lewiston.

In the more than 1,200 comments and complaints registered by utility regulators, it appears that just one cites a concern about the company’s plans on Larrabee and Merrill roads, on land between Main and College streets near the Greene town line.

Paul Fischer, a Greene resident, worried the project “will impact wildlife, tourism — and my backyard.”

Living next door, he said, he is concerned “all the drilling and blasting” involved in construction would hurt his ability to draw water safely from his well.

The larger concerns raised by thousands of Mainers, environmental groups and municipalities in Western Maine focus more on the environmental impact of the plan.

One of the Mainers registering her disapproval, Lolita Lambert of Lewiston, said that if the project goes through, “we will no longer have Maine’s beauty in its natural form.”

Instead, she said, it will have a utility project “leaving scarred land and ugly landscapes to view.”

Lambert said she doesn’t want “to help Massachusetts at the expense of hurting Maine. I want my children and grandchildren to enjoy Maine’s natural beauty as we all have. This is not the way to go.”

Much of the proposed line would follow an existing corridor that is strung with electrical wires on tall towers, but a more than 70-mile section between Lac-Megantic in Quebec and the existing corridor would be entirely new.

The 95-mile corridor that already has electrical transmission lines would have to be widened to accommodate the new line strung along additional towers that will rise about 95 feet from the ground, roughly seven per mile.

Critics charge that the project would mar the beauty of the land, disrupt the movement of plants and animals and generally undermine the wilderness that makes Western Maine a unique environmental treasure.

But advocates say the fears are overblown and that the environmental benefits of relying more heavily on hydropower instead of natural gas easily outweigh the downsides of the project.

Following last week’s PUC approval of the project, it remains under review by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, the Land Use Planning Commission and the Army Corps of Engineers.

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