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Convalt Energy proposes a $5B renewable energy project in northern Maine

An energy company that operates renewable power projects overseas is trying to expand its U.S. footprint, here in Maine. Convalt Energy is proposing a $5 billion energy generation and transmission project headquartered in East Millinocket.

On Thursday Convalt CEO Harry Achuthan signed an agreement with the Katahdin Region Economic Development Corp. and the Lincoln Lakes Innovation Corporation to collaborate on the power and transmission project, called the Maine Energy Corridor. He says it could create a thousand jobs.

"Something of this size and capacity has not been done in this country, and we think the time is right," Achuthan says.

Achuthan envisions solar, biomass and waste-to-energy plants in northern Maine funneling electricity through an underground, high-voltage direct-current line starting in the Millinocket area. It would follow public roads and existing transmission lines 400 miles or more, to serve customers in Maine, New England and beyond.

He says that the coming age of electric vehicles will amp up demand for renewable energy, making the economics work for construction of the line and new power plants, as well as restarting idled biomass and waste-to-energy plants.

"We feel that the northeast is going to take a lead in this and set an example for the rest of the country in terms of being able to advance to the next generation," Achuthan says.

Convalt's investors include former Missouri Congressman Dick Gephardt. And one of its allies in Maine is also a former congressman — Mike Michaud, who now chairs the board at the Katahdin development agency.

"This is going to be built for Americans, by Americans, with American investment - that's why I'm really excited about it," Michaud says.

Once a mill worker himself, Michaud says that in addition to the power and transmission projects, the joint effort could include development of a solar panel recycling facility at the former East Millinocket mill, and a data center.

Convalt already is developing a solar panel manufacturing plant in Watertown, an upstate New York community near Fort Drum.

Michaud's counterpart there, David Zembiec of the Jefferson County Economic Development Corporation, says that so far, Convalt is following through on the big vision it pitched last year for a solar panel production facility that could employ more than 2,000 people.

"It's huge for this area, this rural region, and many times along the way we said, 'Boy, is this really too big to be true, will it really happen?' But … now they're going through the process of site plan review with the planning board, as we speak," he says.

Achuthan says it could take seven years to get from this early stage to project completion in Maine. Without specifically mentioning Maine voters' recent rejection of Central Maine Power's major transmission project in western Maine, he says Convalt plans a careful, town-by-town effort to develop local support before seeking the major state and federal permits the project would likely need.

Corrected: April 18, 2022 at 10:23 AM EDT
A previous version of this piece misidentified the fort near which Convalt is building a solar panel manufacturing plant in upstate New York.
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.