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As one big energy corridor stalls, another moves forward in northern Maine

In this Tuesday, May 28, 2019, photo, power lines are seen in Pownal, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
AP file
In this Tuesday, May 28, 2019, photo, power lines are seen in Pownal, Maine.

As Central Maine Power's energy corridor continues to confront numerous legal and political challenges, there is movement on another major transmission line proposal.

This week, state regulators called for bids to construct a transmission line that would connect northern Maine to the New England electricity grid and encourage the development of renewable energy sources. Supporters say CMP's recent experience should not be seen as a death knell for other projects that will be needed to meet regional and national green energy goals.

The new northern Maine power line effort was mandated by the Legislature this year, and broadly speaking it's not that different from CMP's New England Clean Energy Connect, which grew out of its bid for an energy contract mandated by Massachusetts lawmakers.

Beset by controversy from the start, the CMP project was hammered at the polls a month ago by voters who approved a referendum that aims to kill it. Then last week the state also suspended its environmental permit.

"But now that that has happened, we need a way to get to our renewable energy goals," says Aroostook County Democrat Troy Jackson, who is president of the Maine Senate, and a chief sponsor of the law that could bring the new project to life.

He says Aroostook and parts of Washington county are disconnected from the New England grid, and electricity to or from the area must be routed through Canada.

That's inhibited the success of local biomass energy plants, he says, and the development of wind energy projects that potentially could produce massive amounts of non-polluting electricity — a product that's in high demand as the region and nation move to "decarbonize" the economy.

"And here is Aroostook County that's dying for economic development and has some of the greatest wind in the entire world, biomass and things like that we can't get the power out of Aroostook County viably, and here's an opportunity to get a line built and get some progress going in northern Maine," Jackson says.

The RFP issued by the Maine Public Utilities Commission on Monday is split into two parts: one calling for proposals for the transmission line itself, and one to procure large slugs of renewable energy from wind or solar projects, and from the development of a biomass generation plant.

The legislation calls for procuring at minimum a percentage of the state's overall electricity load that would amount to somewhere between 700 and 1100 megawatts, observers say — enough to provide electricity for hundreds of thousands of homes (or electric vehicles, for that matter) — with the potential of unlocking even larger amounts of the area's wind energy potential.

"This has been the holy grail of clean-energy development in Maine for well over a decade, and this has been the first opportunity to really try and make that a reality," says Jeremy Payne, executive director of the Maine Renewable Energy Association.

Payne says the energy producers in his sector have been anxious to get a foothold in northern Maine, and the proposed project could even lead some big wind turbine manufacturers to locate in the County too.

But, he says, bidders would do well to learn from CMP's experience, that it's important to develop close connections early on with individuals and businesses in potential host communities, to gauge their needs, and court — and maintain — their support.

"And that seems to be sort of the rub that occurred with the CMP line, was once they encountered resistance they said 'we're coming anyway, we've got this letter of support from 14 months ago from your town council.' And then individuals in the town said 'we don't care, we're going to flip that vote, we're going to have them undo that letter,  and then we're not just not going to support your project, we're going to actively oppose it,'" Payne says.

Although there is no specific route chosen for an Aroostook transmission line yet, Jackson and other backers say its footprint would be less intrusive than the CMP project in western Maine, requiring less cutting through woodlands and avoiding high-profile recreation areas like the Kennebec River basin and the Appalachian Trail.

Pete Didisheim, the advocacy director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine — a leading foe of the CMP corridor project — says a northern Maine line might be more like a big transmission upgrade, called the Maine Power Reliability Project, or MPRP, that was completed about 10 years ago by none other than CMP.

"The connection between Aroostook County and the grid we think can be done in a way that co-locates and doesn't cut across significant forestlands. And I think it's much more likely to be the sort of discussion that occurred around the MPRP. That was 300 miles of transmission line, was built in Maine, with some small issues here and there but it got resolved," he says.

Still, some observers say that losing bidders for generating the electricity that would flow across the northern Maine project might try to undermine it, just as competitors of CMP's partner, Hydro Quebec, did by spending big money to challenge the corridor project in the courts and at the ballot box.

Ans one new wrinkle that developers and regulators will need to consider: under the law voters passed last month, construction of all "high-impact" transmission lines longer than 50 miles will require approval by a majority of the Legislature. And if they cross public lands, the bar rises to a vote of two-thirds in each chamber.

CMP did not respond to requests for comment.

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.