February 22, 2019

Hydropower pipeline to Mass. gains critical support

The road has been cleared of significant hurdles for the New England Clean Energy Connect project to bring clean hydropower from Quebec to Massachusetts, and Maine will get a bevy of economic and environmental benefits for hosting the lines that will deliver the energy.

New Maine Gov. Janet Mills announced Thursday that she is now behind the project that Massachusetts is relying on and has agreed to allow the project to advance in the federal and state approval process with conditions intended for the benefit of Mainers.

Under a "stipulation" agreement Central Maine Power Company, the Avangrid Inc. subsidiary behind the 145-mile transmission project, filed Thursday with the Maine Public Utilities Commission, the utility and project will put $140 million towards rate relief for Maine electricity customers, $50 million to benefit low- and middle-income Maine energy customers, $15 million to install efficient heat pumps, $15 million to encourage electric vehicle adoption and use, and about $15 million towards broadband service in western Maine.

The governor's office also touted the environmental benefits of the settlement, saying it will substantially reduce the state's carbon footprint, control energy costs and create jobs for Mainers.

"And it will cost Maine ratepayers nothing," Mills said Thursday. "Massachusetts will foot the bill."

After Massachusetts energy officials and utility executives dropped the state's first choice of a transmission project to deliver hydropower from Quebec to Massachusetts -- the Northern Pass project through New Hampshire -- due to regulatory opposition in New Hampshire, utility executives decided to negotiate long-term contracts with CMP and the NECEC project under a 2016 energy law.

Avangrid and CMP have said the $950 million NECEC project will provide an above-ground link between the electrical grids in Quebec and New England to provide up to 1,200 megawatts of cleaner and more reliable hydropower directly to a converter station in Lewiston, Maine, and on into the regional power grid.

"For us, this is a real milestone. It reinforces the case we've been making in the sense that there are clear benefits for Maine, benefits for our economy, benefits for our environment and benefits for consumers," Avangrid spokesman John Carroll said. "There is no way to overstate it; this is a big step for the project."

The settlement and Mills' support for it is expected to clear the way for the Maine Public Utilities Commission to issue a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity for the NECEC project. The governor's office said that certificate "will allow the New England Clean Energy Connect project to undergo further review before other state and federal agencies."

Carroll said the project will still need to secure permits from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection and the Maine Land Use Planning Commission, which are expected to be granted by late summer. Carroll said the plan is to begin construction on the transmission corridor in late 2019 or very early 2020.

At the federal level, NECEC still needs to be certified by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and must obtain a Presidential Permit from the U.S. Department of Energy because its transmission line connects across the border into Canada. Carroll said the Corps of Engineers could rule by late July or August and that the presidential permit process would follow.

Though regulatory hurdles remain, the stipulation agreement announced Thursday removed the most significant barrier to the project -- the kind of local and environmental opposition that pestered the Northern Pass plan and may have led regulators to deny a crucial permit on terms the project required.

Local and environmental opposition still exists, though. The Natural Resources Council of Maine said Thursday that the settlement "would not address the fundamental flaw in the transmission project: it would harm Maine substantially -- from the state's forests, waters, and wildlife to local clean energy projects and jobs -- without benefitting the climate."

Mills, who said as a candidate in October that she had "very serious questions" about NECEC, said the agreement announced Thursday sweetened the pot enough for her to get behind the project because its provisions "will put our state and our region on the road to a zero carbon economy by 2050."

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