February 24, 2020
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Quebec hydro project could spoil a pristine Maine wilderness

George Danby | BDN
George Danby | BDN

In my younger days, I canoed and rafted down many American rivers, including the Allagash and the mother of all whitewater rapids, the Colorado. I held on for dear life as we tossed our way through the Grand Canyon, thinking, “There is no better way to appreciate the beauty of our country.”

Since then, I have ventured from the boundaries of asphalt, but given my increasing creakiness, I may never make it through the spectacular Kennebec River Gorge, one of the last unspoiled gorges in the Northeast. Just knowing that this pristine stretch of untamed wilderness exists and remains accessible to the public calms my soul. It is Maine.

But this oasis may soon be ruined forever. Avangrid, the parent corporation of Central Maine Power, is now seeking permission from the Maine Public Utilities Commission to cut a 145-mile-long, 400-foot-wide clearing through western Maine to bring power from Canada to Massachusetts.

The power line will run from Quebec, past West Forks and to Lewiston, where CMP’s lines will connect with the New England electric grid. About 50 miles of this route has been described as virgin forest. Most alarming, CMP wants to run its transmission lines across the Kennebec Gorge. If approved, the most awe-inspiring part of the Kennebec now traveled yearly by thousands of rafters and others would be despoiled by power lines, a graphic and unavoidable reminder that you have not escaped.

The project’s stated purpose is to bring clean hydropower from Quebec to Massachusetts, which has embarked on an ambitious plan to increase its share of renewable energy. That’s good, but what’s in it for Maine, besides an eyesore? Not much. Probably a few short-term construction jobs, tax revenue in small communities, and $22 million for a Somerset County nonprofit to invest in conservation and nature-based infrastructure. Environmental groups oppose the plan, and they have intervened in the utilities commission’s process to voice their concerns.

The original winning bid to supply Massachusetts with Quebec hydropower would have run through New Hampshire, but state regulators wisely rejected it. Interestingly, the companies pushing bids to run transmission lines in Vermont and New Hampshire were prepared to compensate those states and communities a whole lot more than $22 million. CMP apparently thinks Maine is a cheap date.

The utilities commission, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, and the Maine Land Use Planning Commission, which holds the zoning authority for the Unorganized Territory, are evaluating CMP’s plan. Among the issues: Although other routes are more expensive (such as avoiding the gorge by running the line there under the river or crossing the river upstream at the Harris Dam, Maine’s largest hydroelectric dam), is the additional cost really prohibitive?

Will Maine ratepayers’ costs go down? Maine gets its electricity from the same grid as Massachusetts, but helping Mainers is surely not why Massachusetts is footing part of this project’s bill.

Will importing Canadian hydropower reduce greenhouse gases? Yes, in New England, but maybe not in a way that actually addresses a global problem. Hydro Quebec, the proposed supplier, need not increase its output to supply Massachusetts but can simply redirect some of its current supply from less profitable destinations or purchase cheap power from other markets to satisfy this lucrative contract. If Hydro Quebec does build more dams, that will add to Canadian habitat destruction and the carbon emissions as massive forest lands get flooded.

When supposedly local interests compete with a regional or national interests, there is bound to be pushback. But this is not a local issue and not an example of NIMBYism. More reliance on clean, renewable energy is needed, but in the process we cannot sacrifice other core values.

I’m used to power lines; they are all over the place in Yarmouth. But the woods, streams and rivers of western Maine and the creatures that live there cannot be restored once they are desecrated. Maine’s unique sway over our imagination must remain intact. It is who we are. The utilities commission must steer CMP to a solution that protects both aspects of the common good.

Janice Cooper represents Yarmouth, Long Island and Chebeague in the Maine House. She serves on the Legislature’s Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee.

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