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April 1, 2019

Hydro project sought by Massachusetts gets boost in Maine

The staff of the Maine Public Utilities Commission has recommended a key certificate for a major hydropower project that could bring major economic and environmental benefits to New England, though staffers acknowledged "adverse and significant" effects on scenic and recreational values in areas near the project.

Maine's Public Utilities Commission staff on Friday night recommended a certificate of public convenience and necessity for New England Clean Energy Connect, a 1,200 megawatt transmission line project running 145 miles from the Canadian border to Lewiston, Maine that is designed to move Hydro Québec power into the region.

The project's $1 billion cost will be paid by Massachusetts utilities customers and Hydro Québec, as Bay State utilities and Gov. Charlie Baker's administration chose the project to help Massachusetts meets its statutory requirements to increase its renewable energy supplies.

A project spokesman said the commission's examiner's report assembed by staff "squarely addresses the questions that have been raised" during a long regulatory proceeding. Project opponents at the Natural Resources Council of Maine said there's substantial and growing opposition to the project in western Maine and urged the Maine Legislature to pass a bill requiring an independent project analysis.

The project, according to the council, still faces "many layers of review, any one of which could ultimately lead to its defeat if a permit is denied." 

Maine's Portland Press Herald said the staff recommendation "sets the stage for one of the most consequential decisions in recent years by the PUC: Whether to give New England Clean Energy Connect a key permit it needs to move ahead with a project that has sharply divided Maine policymakers and residents." 

The plan represents a key piece in the shifting Massachusetts energy landscape. Nuclear energy is scheduled to stop flowing this year from Pilgrim Station in Plymouth. State policymakers are weighing additional rounds of renewable power mandates. And lawmakers and their constituents continue to grapple with controversies over natural gas pipeline and infrastructure projects, including a waterfront compressor station in Weymouth.

From a clean energy standpoint, New England Clean Energy Connect would supplement the 800 megawatt Vineyard Wind project that's advancing 15 miles south of Martha's Vineyard, as well as a second offshore wind project of up to 800 megawatts that's newly on schedule to go out to bid this summer. The Massachusetts Sierra Club called the procurement "a crucial next step in moving Massachusetts toward 100 percent renewable energy."

The NECEC project prevailed in a Massachusetts clean energy procurement, which drew 46 proposals, after the New Hampshire Site Evaluation Committee in February 2018 denied a permit for the Northern Pass project, the initial choice of Massachusetts utilities Eversource, National Grid and Unitil and state officials. 

In a 162-page report, commission staff said the NECEC project's adverse impacts will be mitigated and broadly cited project benefits in Maine on "economics, reliability, public health and safety, scenic, historic and recreational values, and state renewable energy goals." 

Regulators project the creation of more than 1,600 jobs "during the NECEC construction phase, and on an ongoing basis through property taxes." The expected commercial operations date of the NECEC is December 2022.

The examiner's report also endorsed a project stipulation announced last month by Maine Gov. Janet Mills.

Under that agreement, Central Maine Power Company, the Avangrid Inc. subsidiary behind the 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.

Mills last month 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."

Mills, who said as a candidate in October that she had "very serious questions" about NECEC, said last month that the stipulation agreement 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."

NECEC spokesman John Carroll said the project has been subject to a "thorough and objective" 18-month review by the commission. Project officials plan to further review the examiner's report and file any comments by April 8 "as provided in the most recent schedule for the proceeding." 

"This report squarely addresses the questions that have been raised in the course of this proceeding, and confirms that the project will provide environmental and economic benefits for Maine," Carroll said in a statement. "Consistent with the Commission's rules of procedure, the company cannot comment further on the Examiner's Report."

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