The governor signs on to a deal that would give Maine $258 million in benefits in exchange for a permit to build the 145-mile project to send power from Canada to Massachusetts.
BY TUX TURKEL
Gov. Janet Mills has emerged as a pivotal figure in the debate over CMP's proposed transmission line from Canada, even without the authority to issue a permit. Her stamp of approval will boost backers of the project.
Gov. Janet Mills has signed onto a deal to support Central Maine Power’s controversial proposal to build a 145-mile transmission line to carry hydropower from Quebec to Massachusetts.
The negotiated settlement between the executive branch, a utility watchdog, business and labor groups, and some environmental groups was finalized Wednesday and is expected to be filed with the Public Utilities Commission on Thursday.
The PUC is the lead agency deciding whether there’s a public need in Maine for the roughly $1 billion New England Clean Energy Connect project, even though none of the power would be directly used here. The PUC’s decision could come in early spring.
The perceived pros and cons of building a transmission corridor in western Maine have emerged as one the state’s most contentious energy and environmental battles in many years. Proponents tout economic benefits, clean hydropower to fight climate change and a tempering of wholesale electricity costs.
Critics dispute the claimed benefits of bringing power to another state, and say, either way, they won’t offset the impacts of the project, including a 150-foot-wide clear-cut for 52 miles through the North Woods to carry new transmission lines that will connect to CMP’s existing corridors.
Maine’s new governor has emerged as a pivotal figure in the debate. The Democrat does not decide whether to issue a permit, but her stamp of approval is a boon to backers of the project. In recent days, Mills has been reviewing the terms of the deal project backers are offering to help win support for the transmission line.
“Gov. Mills has always tried to approach the NECEC proposal with a single standard – that any deal must result in substantial and concrete long-term benefits to the people of Maine,” Lindsay Crete, her press secretary, said in a statement.
In exchange for a permit to build the line, CMP and its partners would dole out roughly $258 million in Maine over 40 years to help lower electric bills, advance clean-energy efforts, and fund other public and community benefits.
CMP had previously tried to make the project palatable to western Maine communities with a $22 million package of conservation benefits, but it failed to gain traction. The agreement signed this week is more than 10 times larger and much broader in scope.
A VOTE WITHIN SIGHT
The deal follows months of negotiations and marks an important benchmark as the 16-month-old case nears a climax. While not binding on the PUC’s decision, the settlement acts as a recommendation to the three commissioners from major stakeholders, including the state’s executive branch, embodied by Mills and the Governor’s Energy Office; consumers represented by the Office of Public Advocate; large power users who are members of the Industrial Energy Consumer Group; and at least some environmental advocates, represented by the Conservation Law Foundation and the Acadia Center. Other signatories include business and labor groups.
“This is how a lot of complex cases get resolved,” said John Carroll, a CMP spokesman. “When you have a (settlement) on the table, it means you’re close to a likely resolution. If an agreement is broadly supported, that’s something the commission looks at favorably. So it would be a turning point for the project.”
Coming to terms with a wide spectrum of interest groups also gives Avangrid, CMP’s parent company, and Hydro Quebec, the Canadian partner that would provide 1,200 megawatts of capacity for the high-voltage line, some momentum heading to another critical point in the case.
The PUC staff and its lead attorneys have spent months analyzing information and testimony and are preparing a much-anticipated examiner’s report. It represents the staff’s expert recommendations to the three commissioners who will decide the fate of the permit. It could come in early March.
The commissioners aren’t bound by the examiner’s assessment, but these reports historically serve to guide their decision. Deliberations haven’t been scheduled, but with a settlement in hand and the examiner’s report pending, a vote at the PUC is within sight.
Although disputed in this case by some parties, any settlement, formally called a stipulation, that includes the Public Advocate, Governor’s Energy Office and industrial customers is significant, said David Littell, a principal at the Regulatory Assistance Project and a former PUC commissioner.
“It makes it easier for the commission to accept it,” he said. “It provides the appearance that the commission is endorsing something that the parties have gotten behind.”
The power line proposal has created odd alliances. Power plant owners who face new, state-subsidized competition have joined forces with some conservation interests to undermine the project. It also has divided clean-energy partners, with regional advocates endorsing the settlement while Maine’s leading environmental voice, the Natural Resources Council of Maine, is fighting the plan. On Wednesday, the council called the settlement a desperate and calculated move.
“Mainers don’t support CMP’s corridor project because it is a bad deal for Maine and our environment,” said Dylan Voorhees, NRCM’s clean energy project director. “This massive corridor would cause large-scale damage to Maine’s North Woods, would not reduce carbon pollution, and could block local clean energy projects that would provide real jobs and benefits for Mainers. CMP’s settlement offer doesn’t change these fundamental problems.”
The group also said that across as many as 40 years, the $258 million payout would be worth only $108 million in today’s dollars. That would lower monthly household electric bills by only 6 cents, the NRCM calculated, and give low-income households an average benefit worth only $2.37 per year.
The settlement sets up a $140 million fund to help lower electric rates and a separate $50 million fund for low-income customers, paid over 40 years. Also in the package are $15 million for heat pump installations; $15 million for electric vehicle charging stations; $5 million for communities along the power line route; and $15 million for high-speed internet service and fiber optic cable. All totaled, the package has a cash value today of $258 million.
A draft outline of the settlement was first reported Feb. 6 by the Portland Press Herald. The exact terms of the final agreement have yet to be made public. But aside from language changes and certain provisions, the broad outlines of the deal are generally unchanged, according to sources.
Approval from state utility regulators would clear a major hurdle for CMP, but it wouldn’t be the final word. Federal permits are still needed. And in Maine, attention will turn next to the Department of Environmental Protection and Land Use Planning Commission, agencies that also must approve permits for the project to move forward. Issues to be debated there include impacts on scenery, recreation, wildlife habitat, wetlands and cold-water fisheries.
Reflecting the high interest in the project, those two agencies have blocked off at least a week of public hearings, now planned for April 1-5 at the University of Maine at Farmington. Testimony is being consolidated into 10 different intervenor groups, ranging from local residents to power generators and Maine Guides to state officials.
As a candidate last year, Mills was circumspect about the project’s merits. But in recent weeks said she was encouraged by the first draft of the settlement agreement. During a call-in show Feb. 12 on Maine Public Radio, she said she was pleased by CMP’s efforts to sweeten the deal, and mentioned the electric car charging stations as one example. The show led to a wave of calls and emails to Mills’ office.
A day later, Maine Public reported, she had a brief encounter with Ignacio Galan, the head of CMP and Avangrid’s parent company, Iberdrola. The Spanish executive was reportedly in the United States on business and came to Maine to meet with Mills’ staff and introduce himself to her. Mills’ press office said Galan met with the staff for 20 minutes, and that the governor attended only the final minutes and didn’t discuss the project.