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Should Northern New England Host Massachusetts' Renewable Energy Extension Cord?

Central Maine Power's New England Clean Energy Connect proposal (left) and Emera Maine's Atlantic Link proposal.

A play by Massachusetts to inject more renewable power into its electricity mix could reshape the entire region's energy landscape. Dozens of developers are competing to offer Massachusetts the best price for long-term contracts to supply clean energy to hundreds of thousands of homes. 

But many of the projects also face another challenge: convincing residents of Northern New England it's in their interest to host the Bay State's extension cord.

For all the attention renewable power gets, it still provides only about 10 percent of New England's electrical energy. The region's recent successes in reducing emissions of greenhouse gases have come, to the greatest degree, from the rise of relatively-clean burning natural gas as the dominant power source.

"To me, that's the story in New England," says Sara Burns, CEO of Central Maine Power, Maine's largest utility.

She says big, long-term renewable energy contracts being sought by Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker could mark a tipping point.  "Actually, I think that's what Charlie Baker's trying to do here, to make bigger plays to make a bigger difference on this."

Burns is a close follower of Baker's plan, because it's about more than just windmills, dams and big solar farms - it's about the high-voltage transmission lines her company specializes in, the kind needed to transport bulk electricity from remote locations to market. CMP is one of a half dozen companies bidding to build transmission lines 100 miles long and more, running from, or through, the three northern New England states to link up to Massachusetts.

Billions of dollars are at stake, and each of the bidders is trying to highlight selling points - even as they fend off challenges from competitors and critics.  

"There is a very large, committed activist base that is mobilized against this project," says Sam Evans-Brown, who hosts New Hampshire Public Radio's Outside/In podcast, and who, for seven years, has watched debate over a transmission proposal in his state called Northern Pass.  It would carry electricity from Hydro-Quebec's massive dam system to Massachusetts, part of it buried under the White Mountains.

Evans-Brown says opponents want to know why their scenery should become the pass-through for Massachusetts' electricity needs, "people who have businesses that would be impacted by the construction, and who believe they're business depends on tourists coming up to visit. There's a very famous pancake parlor that the owner came and gave very impassioned testimony."

"Good morning. For the record my name is Kathie Aldrich-Cote." Cote, co-owner of that pancake house, spoke at a recent state hearing on the project.

"It will be devastational (sic) for us. Tourists will avoid the area and find other destinations to visit; they may not return for many years, if at all," she said.

Just this year, an alternative emerged in New Hampshire, called the Granite State Power Link. In contrast to several proposals that depend on existing Hydro-Quebec facilities, it would carry power from new wind and solar energy plants.

Project director Joseph Rossignoli says that means bigger reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, as called for by Massachusetts' climate policies. 

"And that's significant because contracting with resources that are not in service yet and would only go into service to the extent that they won the bid, that really provides meaningful progress toward the Global Warming Solution act goals," Rossignoli says.

"There'll be different strategies that'll be employed," says Kerrick Johnson, an executive at the Vermont Electric Power Company, which runs part of that state's grid. VELCO is backing a Vermont project called the TDI Clean Power Link. It would sluice electricity to Massachusetts from Hydro-Quebec via cable below Lake Champlain.

Johnson says TDI's strategy is working in Vermont - few above-ground lines to draw opposition and a helpful TDI agreement to subsidize transmission bills for Vermonters. 

And Johnson says no matter who wins or what eventual configuration is chosen, the Massachusetts procurement is just a curtain-raiser for renewable efforts to come. "Each of the six New England states are notoriously and gloriously independent, and the process isn't finished; we'll see how it plays out."

The contract winners are expected to be announced in January. Meantime, another big Charlie Baker play is coming up - long-term energy contracts relying almost exclusively on offshore wind turbines, which could be the next big thing for renewable power in the Northeast. 

It's still a relatively costly technology, but here's one advantage - you can build ocean-based windmills pretty close to the demand centers, and avoid all those long transmission lines.

Fred Bever reported this story for the New England News Collaborative.


A Columbia University graduate, Fred began his journalism career as a print reporter in Vermont, then came to Maine Public in 2001 as its political reporter, as well as serving as a host for a variety of Maine Public Radio and Maine Public Television programs. Fred later went on to become news director for New England Public Radio in Western Massachusetts and worked as a freelancer for National Public Radio and a number of regional public radio stations, including WBUR in Boston and NHPR in New Hampshire.