Maine wind, Canadian hydro, natural gas: Are the stars aligning for a bright energy future in New England?

An aerial photo, taken March 18, 2012 of First Wind's 60 megawatt, 200 wind turbine Rollins Wind project, 8 miles east of Lincoln, Maine.
photo by R.W. Estela
An aerial photo, taken March 18, 2012 of First Wind's 60 megawatt, 200 wind turbine Rollins Wind project, 8 miles east of Lincoln, Maine.
Posted Nov. 22, 2013, at 5:27 a.m.
Last modified Oct. 24, 2014, at 12:56 p.m.

It’s the latest way of thinking about New England’s energy future: Each state has something the others need.

Maine has wind resources and the space for turbines. Southern New England has the demand for renewable energy.

Maine now has a law that asks state officials to look into the best options for bringing more inexpensive natural gas to New England. Connecticut and Massachusetts are closest to the Marcellus shale in Pennsylvania and New York where much of that gas is being extracted.

In addition, most New England states are looking into jointly purchasing large-scale hydropower from Canadian resources — in Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador — and Maine’s location puts it along the likely transmission route to southern New England, home to the bulk of the region’s demand.

All of those considerations factor heavily into ongoing conversations among energy officials in the six New England states that could lead to a regional energy strategy in the coming years. The strategy would address the infrastructure needed to meet a growing demand for renewable power in southern New England and a desire across the region for lower energy prices.

“It’s the first time I can recall having focused discussions [as a region] with particular kinds of infrastructure in mind,” said Thomas Welch, chairman of the Maine Public Utilities Commission and one of Maine’s representatives in these regional talks.

While the talks — which have unfolded over the past few months — haven’t yet led to a formal plan, they address many of the policy priorities for individual New England states, from the desires of Maine’s Republican Gov. Paul LePage to those of Democratic Govs. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts and Dannel Malloy of Connecticut.

“We’ve come to recognize that there is a very serious energy infrastructure gap across New England in terms of where we are and what we need,” said Daniel Esty, commissioner of Connecticut’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. “We’ve come to recognize that there’s a need for both new electric transmission and, very, very critically, new gas pipeline.”

Renewable demand

The demand for more renewable energy in New England is an outgrowth of policy. All six New England states have laws on the books meant to spur more generation from renewable sources like wind. Those renewable generation goals become steadily more aggressive over time.

Since Massachusetts and Connecticut, with their renewable energy goals, are home to the bulk of New England’s people and businesses, they drive the regional energy demand — including the demand for much of the renewable energy being developed in Maine. In recent months, utilities in those states have signed agreements with wind developers working on Maine projects.

In Massachusetts, Patrick has made greenhouse gas emission reductions and development of clean energy sources top priorities, said Steven Clarke, Massachusetts’ assistant secretary of energy. “We need to make some significant changes to our power sector, which is one of the leading emitters of greenhouse gases in the country,” he said.

Four Massachusetts utilities in September signed a 15-year agreement with Boston-based First Wind to purchase the electricity generated at two Maine wind farms the company is developing in Aroostook and Somerset counties.

Around the same time, Connecticut’s two utilities signed a power purchase agreement with Houston-based EDP Renewables for the electricity it plans to generate at a project it’s developing in southern Aroostook County.

“Maine has a couple of things to offer. It does have a strong wind resource. Maine is also a likely transmission path into the rest of New England,” said Welch. “Obviously, it’s important that Maine gets some value.”

The value for Maine

Gov. Paul LePage hasn’t been the proponent for wind energy his Democratic predecessor, John Baldacci, was. He’s long been critical of state laws he sees as favoring wind energy development, and he has blamed wind energy for inflating Maine’s energy prices. In May, he proposed stripping from state law goals for increasing the state’s wind energy capacity over the next two decades.

But if Maine can play a role in satisfying its southern counterparts’ demand for wind energy, LePage is open to selling it to southern New England utilities in exchange for some benefit to Maine’s ratepayers, said Patrick Woodcock, LePage’s energy director.

“We could prioritize where the development would occur, have a more strategic plan for where the wind projects would be developed and use that as a component in a regional energy infrastructure plan,” Woodcock said.

LePage is keenly interested in developing additional natural gas pipeline that can bring more of the cheap gas into the region and drive down energy prices that are some of the highest in the nation. While natural gas prices are low, New England has paid the highest daily natural gas prices in the country for much of the past year because of limited pipeline infrastructure flowing into the region.

The Legislature in June passed an energy bill that could lead to Maine ratepayers partially financing a pipeline buildout in southern New England, where the gas could enter New England’s electric grid. It’s that law that has sparked many of the regional energy conversations, Woodcock said.

“It led to broader questions about whether we can collectively address some of the competitiveness issues and also more economically achieve some of the environmental objectives as well,” he said.

The regional talks also involve another of LePage’s priorities: hydropower imports from Canada.

Maine, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Vermont have started collaborating on a regional study examining how New England can import more hydropower from Quebec and new hydro resources being developed in Canada’s easternmost province.

“If New England pooled together to bid for hydropower, that’s better than every state individually doing a bid for hydropower,” Woodcock said. “We can use our market size to our advantage.”

Environmental groups, including the Conservation Law Foundation, have raised concerns that importing large amounts of hydropower could discourage the development of new renewable resources in New England.

The hydropower initiative comes on the heels of another regional initiative begun last year that’s expected ultimately to lead to joint purchasing by the states of large amounts of renewable energy.

“The focus of that process was to use economies of scale to procure large amounts of renewable energy, and that would make the resource most cost-effective,” said Clarke, Massachusetts’ assistant energy secretary.

Getting power where it needs to go

The organization that manages New England’s electric grid, ISO New England, earlier this year projected that New England would experience virtually no growth in electric demand over the next decade thanks to energy efficiency measures.

But with new renewable resources expected to come online and the Vermont Yankee nuclear facility slated to close next year, potentially followed by other, older oil- and coal-fired power plants, new transmission lines will be needed to move the power to the region’s high-demand areas.

An analysis conducted for New England’s six governors found new transmission lines needed to connect 2,000-12,000 new megawatts of wind power (for context, Maine currently has about 600 megawatts of wind power online or under development) would cost between $1.6 billion and $25 billion.

A number of transmission projects are in the works for that purpose.

The Green Line project, proposed by a team including the Maine construction firm Cianbro would transmit wind power from Aroostook County to the Boston area through an underwater transmission line. The utility Emera is proposing the Northeast Energy Link, an underground transmission line running along interstate highway corridors from Orrington to Tewksbury, Mass. And in the western part of the region, the New England Clean Power Link could transmit Canadian hydropower from Quebec into the New England grid through cables buried under Lake Champlain.

Another proposed transmission project known as the Northern Pass, linking Quebec hydropower with the New England grid in New Hampshire, has proven controversial.

Welch said conversations among regional energy officials have stayed away from specific transmission projects and focused instead on the broad picture.

“I think all of us are very flexible as to where new transmission would go, and whether Northern Pass is a future part of the energy structure is up to the people of New Hampshire,” said Esty, Connecticut’s energy and environmental protection commissioner.

“We are very close to two world-class resources,” said Woodcock, referring to Canadian hydropower and natural gas in Pennsylvania and New York. “We should explore if we can utilize those resources and better integrate them into our economies. We haven’t really been doing this as a region in the past.”

Matthew Stone is BDN opinion page editor.

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