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Legislation Would Help Create Power Line For Renewable Energy Made In Aroostook County

FILE - In this Jan. 24, 2007, file photo, a cluster of windmills of the north side of Mars Hill Mountain is seen in Mars Hill, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
FILE - In this Jan. 24, 2007, file photo, a cluster of windmills of the north side of Mars Hill Mountain is seen in Mars Hill, Maine.

There was early momentum Tuesday for what could be Maine's next big transmission project linked to renewable energy goals, this one in Aroostook County. The latest plan, as envisioned in legislation before the utilities committee, got a positive review at the State House.

Energy analysts say the County has some of the state's best potential for developing cost-effective wind and other renewable energy resources. But the area lacks a major transmission connection to the regional electricity grid, relying instead on energy routed through Canada.

Now lawmakers are considering a bill that aims to get a power line built to unlock that potential and bring cost-effective renewable energy to Maine and beyond.

"Aroostook County is really leaning into this. We've been waiting for decades to produce our renewable energy up here and get it to the markets where it's needed," says Paul Towle, president of the Aroostook Partnership, a public-private economic development group.

He says county residents are generally supportive of developing big energy infrastructure. And he says this one — costing as much as a half-billion dollars — would be less contentious than the New England Clean Energy Connect transmission line in western Maine.

"This would fly through pretty seamlessly in my prediction. The ensuing projects promise to generate millions in economic benefits to a much-needed area in northern Maine through jobs, payroll taxes, local taxes, etc. And climate advantages obviously (are) there — we all know what we're doing this stuff for," he says.

Towle was one of dozens of area residents, renewable energy developers and others supporting the measure in a Utilities Committee hearing.

Introduced by Senate President Troy Jackson — of Aroostook County — the bill would order state regulators to solicit bids to build the transmission line, as well as bids for developing wind, solar and biomass energy to supply its wires with renewable energy.

Tony Buxton, an energy attorney who represents Clearway Energy, says after years of rising demand, renewable generation developers are looking for creative ways to finance a high-capacity Aroostook County transmission line.

"The moment of opportunity is now. The Biden infrastructure plan is proposing a 30% investment tax credit for transmission rather than something for solar and wind and so on. And that would reduce the cost of any transmission line equivalent to tax-exempt financing," he says.

Buxton estimates that typical ratepayers in Central Maine Power or Versant's territory might pay an additional 70 cents a month on their utility bills to pay off construction costs.

Regulators, he says, would have to weigh that against potential savings from the influx of renewable energy, at a time when it's in high demand as governments try to end reliance on fossil fuels.

"There's no cheaper power in Maine than the power that will come out of Aroostook county wind projects. Anywhere," he says.

Buxton says Maine should try to hold onto that value for its ratepayers.

The administration of Gov. Janet Mills, though, says lawmakers should consider ways that the project might be geared to a more regionalized clean-energy effort, which would allow costs to be spread among ratepayers throughout New England.

And Melissa Winne, an analyst in the Governor's Energy Office, also raised questions that as written the bill might give too much emphasis on procuring biomass energy generation.

"Given the other components for consideration, including cost-effective, meeting the statutory energy and climate goals and economic benefits to northern Maine, we have some questions about this additional technology requirement. We do support a fully competitive bid process that will allow the greatest benefits to Maine people," Winne says.

There was no testimony against the measure — that's unusual for a major energy project being proposed in Maine.

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.