Central Maine Power’s push to build a controversial new transmission line through western Maine’s forests so that hydropower from Quebec can be served to Massachusetts customers received a big boost last week when Democratic Gov. Janet Mills signed onto the proposal. But questions about the project persist, including this one: What happens if the state experiences widespread power outages?
Opponents of the project say Mainers should be alarmed at the answer.
The New England Clean Energy Connect, or NECEC, project has been under review by the Maine Public Utilities Commission for months, drawing over 1,000 comments from supporters and opponents and producing reams of documents and transcripts.
During the hearings, attorneys and experts have questioned CMP officials about the project. Last month, an attorney for NextERA Energy Resources, which opposes the project, asked a CMP consultant about whether the new transmission line to Massachusetts would be a top priority for CMP crews in the event of a massive outage.
“That was a surprising revelation, especially because Maine already has a substantial problem, I would say, with reliability,” says Dylan Voorhees with the Natural Resources Council of Maine, an environmental group that opposes the transmission project.
Voorhees says Mainers should be worried that in a major outage, the proposed transmission line could divert CMP restoration crews away from downed lines that directly service Maine homes and businesses.
He cites federal data reported by Maine Public Radio last month that show Maine electricity users endured the most frequent service interruptions and the longest outages of any state in the U.S. in 2017.
Voorhees acknowledges that it’s rare for a big storm to take out bulk transmission lines.
“But if it does happen, it takes crews that would be dealing with your local power line on your street — in Phippsburg or Hallowell or wherever you are — those crews would be out in Somerset County or Franklin County fixing this line,” he says.
“The distribution crews are not in any way going to be diverted to other tasks associated with the transmission lines,” says John Carroll, a spokesman for CMP and the NECEC project.
Carroll says crews that fix downed transmission lines like the one under consideration are different from those deployed to restore what are known as distribution lines — the ones on the street or road outside your home.
He says the distinction between transmission and distribution is important.
“You know the tree that’s on the line outside their house, that’s very likely a distribution line. An entirely different set of resources are committed to working on the distribution system in a major storm because of the nature of the equipment, the nature of qualifications and the nature of experience in those crews,” he says.
But what about a major storm that wipes out an array of bulk transmission systems, say a major transmission line that services Maine customers and one that would only serve Massachusetts customers? What’s CMP’s priority then?
Carroll says it depends.
Transmission lines are usually a top priority for restoration because they’re effectively the supply for the distribution system, so fixing those first in a major storm produces the fastest results.
Carroll also says the proposed transmission line to Massachusetts is 1,200 megawatts and would power up to 1 million homes, so it would also be viewed as a priority according to the criteria set by ISO New England, which manages the regional power grid.
“So it will be prioritized, but really by the ISO’s criteria more so than anything Central Maine Power might set,” Carroll says.
Carroll and CMP reject the suggestion that the transmission project could affect reliability, as well as assertions that the company is already failing on that front. But it’s no secret that the 2017 windstorm that knocked out power for tens of thousands of Mainers marked the unofficial beginning of the company’s public relations nightmare, prompting questions over its response and becoming the backdrop for still-unresolved billing problems that has state regulators threatening sanctions.
Maine’s public advocate Barry Hobbins has been critical of CMP, but he has also signed onto the transmission deal.
Does Hobbins believe the proposed transmission line will take priority over lines that directly affect Maine customers?
“It’s a good question,” he says.
But Hobbins says Mainers should be reassured by a stipulation agreement, signed by him and Mills, that requires the transmission project become a separate utility from CMP, still owned by the company’s parent Avangrid but focusing solely on the line to Massachusetts.
“The primary responsibility of Central Maine Power Co. will be to the area of Maine that is serviced and licensed by the state,” he says.
Voorhees is not persuaded that a spinoff utility will somehow hasten CMP’s storm response in Maine.
“This new entity that CMP wants to setup doesn’t come with lineman and crews that fix transmission lines. They would rely on CMP’s lineman to fix those transmission lines,” he says.
Vorhees also dismisses Hobbins’ suggestion that Hydro-Quebec, which is producing the power that CMP is pumping to Massachusetts, would help with restoration efforts in Maine. He says the Canadian public utility’s sole interest is selling hydropower to U.S. customers at market rates to make money so that Canadian customers can continue to have cheap electricity.
“That’s their purpose. It is not a philanthropy,” he says.
It’s unclear whether power restoration priorities will be a focus of the Maine Public Utilities Commission, which is reviewing the transmission project and is expected to issue a report sometime this spring. But the issue is certain to spur public discussion over a project that increasingly resembles a full-fledged election campaign.