Citizens groups and Central Maine Power are escalating their respective arguments for and against a new 145-mile hydropower line that would transmit energy to Massachusetts from Canada through mostly rural areas of western Maine.
CMP late last week started peppering the airwaves with an ad touting the benefits to Maine of the $950 million project, known as New England Clean Energy Connect, or NECEC. The prime-time television ad run during shows including “The Voice” and the Major League Baseball wild card playoffs showed vistas of running waterways amid forests.
The ad touts benefits CMP cites for the project, including creating 1,700 new jobs, broadband access and more than $18 million in increased property taxes annually to communities hosting the power lines. At the end of the ad, viewers are directed to the goodformaine.org website.
The ad will run for the next couple months, said John Carroll, spokesman for Avingrid, CMP’s parent company.
“We want people to understand the benefits of the project,” he said.
Carroll did not know the number of stations carrying the ad or the amount of money CMP is putting into the ad campaign.
“This is not being paid for by CMP customers,” he said. “This is a project-related expense.”
Small communities, citizens fight back
Carroll on Wednesday night presented an update on the project to Somerset County commissioners in Skowhegan, at which citizens also tried to convince commissioners to withdraw support they threw behind the NECEC project in January.
The commissioners said the project will be good for local infrastructure, tourism, lowering energy prices and increasing the tax base. Residents disagreed, saying it will have a negative impact on the environment and the natural beauty of the region.
While CMP initially had received letters of support from most towns along the proposed route, Alna recently became the third small town, following Caratunk and West Forks plantation, to withdraw its support for the project.
Other municipalities support it, including Lewiston, which stands to gain from infrastructure to be built for the project.
Quagmire of permits, hearings ahead
The controversial project so far has drawn 344 filings and 360 public comments on the website of the Maine Public Utilities Commission, one of two regulators that must approve the project. The other two are the Department of Environmental Protection and the Land Use Planning Commission. The LUPC represents the Unorganized Territory in the NECEC discussions, while towns represent themselves for permitting purposes.
Carroll said he updated the Somerset commissioners about CMP’s progress with state and local permitting. Upcoming milestones for CMP, he said, include a public witness hearing at the PUC’s office in Hallowell on Oct. 17, the third such public meeting. The other two meetings took place in Farmington and The Forks plantation, both on Sept. 14.
The second big milestone will come Oct. 19, 22, 30 and 31 during hearings from intervenor parties in the NECEC case. He said it will be the first time PUC commissioners will be able to establish a basis of facts about the project.
The biggest milestone is scheduled for Dec. 7, when the PUC examiners’ report is due to be released.
“That takes the form of an order laying out the facts of the case that are agreed on,” Carroll said. “It will be the first clear direction of where the commission is going. It comes with a recommendation to grant or not grant the CPCN.” The CPCN, or certificate of public convenience and necessity, determines whether the project moves ahead.
“The burden is on CMP to demonstrate that there are benefits from the project,” PUC hearing examiner Chris Simpson said at the Sept. 14 meeting in Farmington. “The burden is on CMP to demonstrate that there’s no real harm as a result of this project. That’s what the PUC is looking at.”
Parties can file exceptions following the examiners’ report. Deliberations are set for Dec. 20. That could be the first major permit for the project from a regulatory group, Carroll said.
The DEP and LUPC will hold hearings around the same time and likely will start in the first half of January, Carroll said. The DEP held a pre-hearing to set up procedures Sept. 7.
CMP also will need to get permits from each town affected by the project.
The Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities will hold hearings early next year about contract prices set by the electricity distribution companies in that state. Those companies will deliver the power brought down through the new line to homes and businesses. CMP signed contracts with the three distribution companies in mid-June. The companies are Eversource Energy, National Grid and Unitil Corp.
Massachusetts ratepayers ultimately will foot the bill for the close to $1 billion NECEC project. Hydro-Quebec has partnered with CMP on the project and will supply the hydroelectric power.
The project aims to bring renewable power to Massachusetts by 2022 so that state can meet its own clean energy standards.
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Correction: An earlier version of this report incorrectly stated when Massachusetts would hold hearings about contract prices.