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Why LePage took his energy agenda to Congress

JONATHAN ERNST | REUTERS
JONATHAN ERNST | REUTERS
Maine Gov. Paul LePage departs after testifying before a U.S. House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee hearing to review draft legislation on hydropower, on Capitol Hill in Washington on May 13, 2015.

PORTLAND, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage has two persistent frustrations with energy in Maine and New England: Hydro-rich Quebec and gas-rich Pennsylvania aren’t that far away as the crow flies, but those energy sources can’t get here from there.

Any projects to get Canadian hydropower or more natural gas into Maine’s energy grid require some form of federal oversight, which is why Maine’s governor testified Wednesday before a U.S. House subcommittee, asking to ease permitting on natural gas pipelines, international power transmission projects and domestic hydropower dams.

Committee members pondered splitting the two issues during the hearing Wednesday, and multiple Democrats questioned whether the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s pipeline approval process needs to be any quicker.

While members of Congress mull those issues, LePage provided more detail on his administration’s goals in regional talks to change New England’s energy supply.

The roads don’t go east-west, but a transmission line could. LePage said Wednesday the difference in electricity prices between Quebec and Maine could be narrowed with a 40-mile transmission line that would connect Maine to power generated by Hydro-Quebec.

Whether western Maine becomes a candidate for a new transmission line depends partly on whether the 1,200 megawatt Northern Pass project moves ahead in New Hampshire, according to Patrick Woodcock, head of the Governor’s Energy Office, who was with LePage in Washington on Wednesday.

Woodcock said NextEra Energy and Central Maine Power Co. have looked at such transmission projects, which likely would connect with Wyman Station in Yarmouth, giving a connection to transmission infrastructure to get the power to New England’s major metropolitan areas.

New Hampshire Public Radio reported Wednesday that project developer Eversource recently proposed an alternative route for a transmission line through the state, providing what officials said is an alternative to the plan that has strong opposition led by the Appalachian Mountain Club.

Woodcock and LePage said they expect to know whether the Northern Pass project or an alternative will move forward by the summer.

“By July or August, the Canadians are going to be looking elsewhere, to the other two states,” LePage said during testimony Wednesday, referring to Vermont and Maine.

Woodcock, who is the senior delegate from Maine in regional talks organized through the New England States Committee on Electricity, said supporting such a transmission project likely would require a long-term contract for hydropower supported by multiple states. Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts put out a request for proposals for renewable power that could fulfill part of renewable standards set in those states.

Maine’s renewable purchasing requirements must be satisfied by generation companies with less than 100 megawatts of capacity, with an exception for wind power. LePage repeatedly has proposed removing that cap, which would allow Canadian hydropower to qualify. His proposal to the 127th Legislature will get a divided report after a split committee vote Tuesday by the Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee.

Hydropower in the state has some potential, though limited. LePage told committee members Wednesday that faster permitting of hydropower projects stands to broaden the state’s energy mix.

“If we were able to energize these little dams, we could generate 70 megawatts and lower the cost that (Maine residents) are currently paying,” LePage said.

That’s based on a study his administration commissioned of all the hydropower resources in the state. But with existing dams included, the study found projects totaling about 56 megawatts had “significant development potential,” based on regulatory and financial hurdles.

For dams not currently generating power, the study found those with significant development potential could produce about 21 megawatts of power.

Developers are ready to hit the gas. Maine’s led the charge in considering whether electricity ratepayers should help pay for the construction or expansion of new natural gas pipeline capacity in the region.

The Legislature granted regulators the authority to build up to $75 million per year for 20 years into electricity rates for that purpose. Staff at the Maine Public Utilities Commission cautioned regulators about Maine going it alone with such a subsidy, unless the cost of capacity “is very low.”

Because most of New England’s power is generated from natural gas, the idea is that more capacity will lower their fuel costs, thereby lowering power prices and justifying the ratepayer expense. It also stands to lower heating costs for homes and businesses on natural gas, though most homes in the state still use heating oil.

Three companies have come forward with proposals that would give New England greater access to natural gas wrested from rock under Pennsylvania and parts of North Dakota.

Any pipeline project needs federal approval and LePage urged Congress to make that process faster.

“It makes no sense why it should take 3 to 5 years to build a pipeline. We built several hundred miles in our state within 18 months,” LePage said, referring to natural gas line construction in the Kennebec Valley by Summit Natural Gas and Maine Natural Gas.

The Houston-based Spectra Energy has pushed for faster review of pipeline proposals at the federal level and has statements of support from LePage and Central Maine Power Co. in bidding for Maine ratepayer support for its pipeline expansion plans.


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