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What Will Maine Get Out Of It? Groups Skeptical About CMP’s Hydropower Plan

Steve Cookson
AP - File Photo
Some Maine skeptics say CMP needs to do a lot more for its local hosts as part of the deal.

Central Maine Power's proposal to bring a massive amount of electricity from Canada through western Maine to Massachusetts will lower electricity costs throughout the region, and ease winter-time price spikes as well; at least, that's the pitch Massachusetts officials are making to regulators there.

But there are many skeptics, and here in Maine, some say CMP needs to do a lot more for its local hosts as part of the deal.

Massachusetts officials this week formally asked regulators to approve a 20-year contract with CMP and Canadian energy giant Hydro Quebec to supply almost one- fifth of the Bay State's electricity. They say consumers there will pay a net of about just under six cents per kilowatt hour to cover the cost of the hydro-electricity itself, as well as construction and operations for related transmission lines through western Maine.

Paul Hibbard is a former chairman of the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities. He says the projected cost for consumers is less than it would be to buy wholesale energy in the region's market over the same period.

"It doesn't look like a bad price," says Hibbard.

He also says the hydro-power's ready availability in winter will benefit the entire region by tamping down acute price spikes on the coldest days, when natural gas is in high demand to heat homes and to fuel electricity plants.

"Because they do provide for guaranteed winter delivery of energy when the region needs it at times when the availability of gas is getting low,” Hibbard says.

But skeptics and opponents of the plan are raising a lot of questions about this week's filings.

Barry Hobbins is Maine's Public Advocate. He says downward price pressure and wintertime savings for the region will indeed benefit Maine consumers — but it's not enough.

Hobbins says he's incensed that CMP included $50 million to assist low-income ratepayers in Massachusetts to meet bid requirements for the project, but that the company has not offered similar assistance to Maine, which will host the 145-mile transmission line. He's demanding at least as much to assist low-income ratepayers in Maine.

"I think it's only right if the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is receiving that type of income."

Hobbins says he and CMP officials plan to talk the about issue soon.

CMP spokesperson John Carroll had no comment on the idea, but he insists that project benefits for Maine are already many, from tens of millions of dollars a year in lower electricity costs, to $18 million per year in added property tax revenues, to reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

“I think if you try to gauge what is Massachusetts getting versus Maine, you should really understand how broad the benefits are... and that stacks up to an enormous benefit for Maine,” Carroll says. “And it doesn't cost ratepayers a penny."

Massachusetts officials are also touting the carbon dioxide emissions that would be averted by securing the hydro-power supply. But some environmentalists say it actually could result in higher CO2 emissions — in chilly Canada.

"We think that we have a winter spike and need for electricity? They have it way worse."

Dylan Voorhees, of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, says that in winter, Hydro-Quebec keeps its local customers' electric heaters humming with supplemental electricity bought from neighboring provinces, which are more reliant on fossil-fueled power plants. Sending electricity to Massachusetts, he says, could force Hydro-Quebec to buy more of that "dirtier" energy, as he calls it.

"The power that New England might get in the winter from Quebec could be some of the dirtiest power and a big part of why this line does not create greenhouse gas benefits."

Hydro-Quebec is not expected to testify on the issue to environmental or energy regulators in Maine. It's not clear yet whether Massachusetts energy regulators will call for testimony from the Canadian company.

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.