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Northern Maine transmission line gets key vote from state regulators

Referendum-Public Utility
Robert F. Bukaty
/
AP file
Central Maine Power utility lines are seen, Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2021, in Pownal, Maine.

State regulators gave initial approval Wednesday to new transmission line that would connect a massive renewable energy project in Aroostook County to New England's power grid.

The Maine Public Utilities Commission stopped short of finalizing an agreement with the two project developers – LS Power Base and wind power developer Longroad Energy – because it remains unclear how much of the estimated $2 billion price tag Maine ratepayers would have to pick up for a project with regional benefits. But PUC commissioner Phil Bartlett said the two projects, if completed, would generate construction jobs and revenues for local communities while replacing power generated from fossil fuels with renewable energy.

"The influx of renewable energy into the regional grid will also place downward pressure on electricity prices, benefiting consumers in Maine and throughout New England,” Bartlett said during Wednesday’s meeting. “Importantly, these benefits will accrue to Maine whether we pay for this line or someone else does."

The decision to approve the bids for the two projects, while holding off on issuing final contracts, is aimed at giving Massachusetts officials time to analyze the project and decide whether to pick up some or much of the costs.

"This will allow these specific projects to move forward and seek partners, which could include Massachusetts or other entities, while not committing Maine ratepayers to an unknown share of the total cost," Bartlett said.

Massachusetts is under an enormous amount of self-imposed pressure to obtain more electricity from wind, solar and hydropower sources as part of the state’s climate action plan to obtain more electricity from renewable energy sources. The state has already agreed to pay for a roughly $1 billion transmission line through western Maine that would allow Hydro-Quebec to feed electricity into the New England grid. But Maine voters passed a referendum to block the 145-mike-long corridor last November. Central Maine Power and its partners on the New England Clean Energy Connect, meanwhile, are fighting in the courts to revive the project.\

Jeremy Payne with the Maine Renewable Energy Association suspects that he does not believe Massachusetts will ultimately have to choose between the two transmission line projects. Payne said Wednesday’s decision was only an initial step but he called it “the most significant step we’ve seen toward clean energy development in Aroostook County for well over a decade.” And given the recent, massive price spikes for natural gas – which is used to generate more than half of New England’s electricity – Payne said states should seize any opportunity to bring more “inflation-proof” sources into the region’s energy mix.

"I think that there are a lot of states in New England that have significant clean energy commitments and targets that they have made,” Payne said. “So, frankly, whether the New England Clean Energy Connect goes forward or not, I still see the Aroostook clean energy potential being something that would be very attractive to them."

Aroostook County has long been regarded as a major potential source of renewable energy for Maine and the region. The problem has always been connecting major projects to New England's grid because power generated in northern Maine first flows into Canada's grid and is then sold back to users in the United States at inflated costs.

Maine's first commercial wind farm was built in Mars Hill along the Aroostook-Canadian border 15 years ago and The County is already home to a 48-turbine wind power facility near Oakfield. But Longroad Energy’s proposed King Pine project which won a bid from the PUC on Wednesday would feature more than 160 wind turbines scattered across 175,000 acres of commercial timberlands north of Oakfield. At roughly 1,000 megawatts, the King Pine project would be Maine’s largest wind power facility, by far.

"It changes the whole area significantly," said Senate President Troy Jackson, an Allagash Democrat who sponsored the bill that directed the PUC to solicit bids for the Aroostook transmission line for renewable energy projects. “We have seen job losses here or people leaving. And I think it turns the whole conversation around.”

Jackson, who has represented parts of Aroostook County for nearly 20 years, said he believes the proposed route of the Aroostook line will be far less contentious than CMP's proposal in western Maine. He added that additional energy projects, such as biomass facilities that would also support the local forest products industry, would likely come online quickly if the transmission line is built but will never happen without it. So the important thing, Jackson said, is getting partners so that “the numbers are right” and Maine ratepayers are protected.

"I feel very comfortable that we are going to make this happen,” Jackson said. “And it's going to be good for both states. It's going to be good for New England."

Massachusetts lawmakers gave regulators in that state until the end of this year to consider whether this latest project in Maine meets their criteria for renewable energy.