Thursday has been a big day for the future of renewable energy in Maine and in all of New England. Bids were due at noon for massive, long-term contracts for renewable energy to serve southern New England.
It could mean more than a hundred new wind turbines in northern and western Maine, and more than 200 miles of new transmission lines to move that wind energy south.
Nora Flaherty interviewed MPBN reporter Fred Bever, who has been following this story.
Fred: Rhode Island, Connecticut and Massachusetts plan to meet their clean energy goals by banding together to procure as much as 600 megawatts of new energy capacity over 15 or 20 years. And they’re looking for non- or low-carbon energy capacity from solar, hydro or wind power. Many observers say that the single largest opportunity to serve that load lies in the windy hills of Maine, including Patrick Woodcock, Gov. Paul LePage’s energy chief. As we now know, Maine’s two largest transmission utilities are making a big play here. Central Maine Power has one bid in that would link turbines in western Maine proposed by SunEdison and Nextera to those southern New england states. And CMP is joining with Emera on a project that would take energy from Aroostook County wind projects. Together those projects could provide more than enough energy to serve the entire ask by the “procuring states,” as they are being called.
Nora: Sounds pretty ambitious. If CMP and Emera are successful, would we see major new transmission lines in Maine?
Fred: Assuming they were approved by Maine regulators, yes. In the west, there’d be 66 miles of new transmission lines running from Pittsfield through The Forks and up to Somerset Mountain. And to the north, more than 150 miles of line from Pittsfield through Haynesville, past Houlton and up to wind turbines in the Hammond area. I spoke to CMP’s John Carrol, who says the project will “unlock” wind opportunities in remote parts of the state. And Carroll says the utilities already have secured the much of the property rights they’d need.
“Some of it’s existing corridor that’s built, other is corridor that we have been developing over the past several years,” Carroll says. “So for instance, in western Maine we have virtually all the corridor we need to make it almost all the way to the Canadian border, so we can really reach some wind areas in far western Maine that would have a very difficult time getting to market right now.”
Nora: So that’s a lot of development and energy created in Maine. Who would pay for it?
Fred: Southern New England electricity users. That’s the idea, at least. Usually when utilities in the region build new transmission, it’s to ensure reliability of the grid, and the cost of that is shared by all electricity users in New England. But in this case, because only southern New England will be served by these new contracts, they are the ones who have to pay, and Mainers are off the hook. Again, that’s the idea, but there are a lot of complex factors that go into assigning transmission and generation costs — one reason why LePage’s administration says it’s going to be monitoring this closely.
Nora: I imagine the utilities are touting the benefits the project would bring.
Fred: You bet, thousands of construction jobs, thousands of dollars in new property taxes, better stability for the grid in Maine. But here’s the really interesting part of their pitch — the projects would lower electricity prices for Mainers, even though all that new energy is dedicated to the southern New England states.
Nora: How does that work?
Fred: Here’s the setup. On a daily basis, the operators of New England’s entire grid look at what expected energy demand will be, and the generators put in bids for prices to serve that need. The operators accept enough bids to fill the demand, with everyone getting paid the price set by the highest-cost energy that’s needed. Because wind energy requires no fuel, when the turbines are running they can offer energy at a lower cost than most other generators, and that has the effect of knocking the highest-priced energy off the “bid stack,” as it’s called. And so all consumers benefit.
Nora: But Maine regulators would get a look at this?
Fred: They will, but only when considering permits for constructing the lines and turbines. Choosing which long-term renewable energy bids — that’s up to regulators and utilities in the three southern states.
Nora: So who’s the competition for CMP and Emera?
Fred: Well, the bids were due at noon Thursday, so I’m still catching up on everything that’s being proposed. One thing I do know about — a New Hampshire project proposed by another big utility, called Eversource. It’s called the Northen Pass, and it’s designed to bring more than 100 megawatts of energy from Canada’s HydroQuebec to the southern markets. It’s been controversial — and some environmentalists I’ve spoken to say big hydro isn’t nearly as “clean” as as big wind. So that’s going to be a fight. And we have yet to see just what kind of support and opposition may develop around these Maine proposals too.
This interview has been edited for clarity.