Most of the time, environmental advocates and the owners of fossil-fuel power plants battle over how much pollution is acceptable, given the need to keep the lights on. But in Maine, they are now aligning against a common enemy – Central Maine Power (CMP).
CMP wants to build a 145-mile transmission line through the state's western forests. The $950 million project would run energy from Canada's Hydro-Quebec dam system down to consumers in Massachusetts if a contract is finalized. Some projections suggest it could bolster company profits by $60 million a year.
CMP is seeking various permits for the project, including one from the Maine Public Utilities Commission. The commission's deadline for arguments in the case was this week - and they've been piling up.
Three strong, frequent themes emerging among opponents and critics of the CMP project include:
"This new transmission line has no climate change benefits, and might actually increase total greenhouse gas emissions.”
"In effect, Maine generators need to be shut off. Some of them are considering retiring, and it definitely puts them over the edge."
"The wind projects that would want to come after and try to qualify, would be unable to do so.”
First argument: although it has been billed as a way to bring low-polluting hydro-power to Massachusetts, no net reduction in carbon dioxide emissions would result.
“Robbing Peter to pay Paul is not increased demand for hydro-power,” says Dylan Voorhees, of the Natural Resources Council of Maine. “If Hydro-Quebec simply wants to redirect the sale of hydro-power in from New York or Ontario to Massachusetts because they'll pay more, that doesn't increase the demand for hydro-power."
Second, the influx of massive amounts of Canadian electricity to the grid would, in the short term, suppress electricity prices in New England. That might seem good for consumers, but ultimately it would drive struggling energy plants in Maine out of business - and cost employees their jobs.
Tanya Bodell is a consultant for Calpine, which runs a natural-gas fired plant in Westbrook.
"The list of plants that we would anticipate, would be most likely to look at retirement, include the Rumford Power Plants, Maine Independence Station, Androscoggin Energy Center and Bucksport Generation – a combination of gas turbines and steam," Bodell says.
Wyman station in Casco Bay could be a victim as well, she says.
But it's not just fossil fuel generators raising the alarm. Francis Pullaro, executive director of RENEW Northeast, which represents wind and solar power developers, says connecting wind projects to the high-voltage, direct-current line that CMP is proposing would be prohibitively expensive. And the electricity from Quebec would take up a lot of capacity on the regional grid, making it that much harder for future renewable projects in Maine and elsewhere to find a place on the system.
CMP is well-armed with answers for these arguments.
"The greenhouse gas question seems, to my mind, turn 20 years of public policy on its head," says spokesperson John Carroll.
Carroll says even if Hydro-Quebec does not build new dams to serve the Massachusetts contract, states will still require greater reductions in carbon dioxide emissions.
"The notion that we suddenly will stop creating new renewable resources in the face of growing demand for it is just at odds with our experience over the last two decades."
As for the idea that the project would curtail development of new wind generation in western Maine, Carroll says this line serves a different purpose.
"It's perfectly suited to that need,” he says. “Some of these groups are looking at CMP to build something that benefits their business. But it's a simple case that if wishes were horses beggars would ride. At some point if they have projects and they need transmission, then the lines will be built to serve it."
And Carroll has little sympathy for complaints from fossil-fuel generators.
"Generally this is a reflection of the fact that this is a competitive market now for electricity generation, and some competitors see a threat to their businesses, or it's an opportunity to advance their own interests, and that's how they are trying to use this process."
The technical details underlying all of these arguments are complicated, and not just for financial winners or electricity users. The future design of the region's energy system is at stake. Maine regulators are expected to weigh in on the issue by early fall, with an emphasis on whether it would it provide benefits for Mainers. The CMP project is also subject to review by federal and regional regulators, as well as Massachusetts officials.