The $950 million New England Clean Energy Connect project aims to deliver hydropower from Quebec to the New England grid through a 145 mile transmission line from Beattie Township to Lewiston. Credit: Courtesy of Central Maine Power

Central Maine Power Co. has proposed to build a new 145-mile transmission line across western Maine to bring hydro power from Quebec to the New England electrical grid, to fulfill Massachusetts’ goals of using more renewable energy. To build it, the company needs a certificate of public convenience and necessity from the Maine Public Utilities Commission, among other state and federal permits.

This sets up the central question for the utilities commission: Is this project a necessity for Maine? To determine this, the commission must weigh the benefits to Maine and the state’s utility customers against the project’s negative impacts.

As the commission does the difficult work of assessing competing claims, it must remain focused on whether this project will benefit Maine. Filings with the commission show there is much dispute about this. Will the project reduce electricity rates in Maine? Will it help or hurt renewable energy generation in the state? How many permanent jobs will be created? How much will the project reduce greenhouse gas emissions?

The commission is holding its last public hearing on the project from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday at the commission’s offices in Hallowell.

[Opinion: Hydro line project doesn’t go far enough to mitigate conservation concerns]

Last year, Massachusetts issued new regulations to increase renewable energy use in the state to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power generation. Greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide, are a major contributor to climate change.

Under the new standards, 16 percent of the Commonwealth’s power must come from renewable sources. This increases to 80 percent by 2050. This cleaner energy does not have to be generated within the state’s borders, which is why Massachusetts is seeking to import electricity generated at hydroelectric dams in Quebec.

To meet these goals, the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources and Massachusetts electricity distribution companies issued a request for proposals for long-term contracts for clean energy projects in March 2017.

Central Maine Power submitted its $950 million New England Clean Energy Connect proposal. However, Massachusetts’ first choice was a project through New Hampshire, called Northern Pass. That plan was ultimately rejected after New Hampshire regulators nixed it, largely because of environmental concerns; the proposed pathway cross the White Mountain National Forest.

Now, Maine regulators face many of the same questions.

Chief among them is whether the project will have the environmental benefits that are touted. CMP argues that getting the Quebec hydropower into the New England electricity grid will lower emissions of carbon dioxide and other pollutants because older, dirtier power plants will go offline.

[Opinion: Keep an open mind about CMP power line project]

Environmental groups and owners of renewable power producers, such a biomass plants and wind and solar generators, worry that their power could be displaced by the CMP project. This could dampen investments in renewable energy development in Maine, which could mean fewer jobs for the industry in Maine.

The town of Caratunk, for example, withdrew its support for the project over concern that the new transmission line may mean a solar array wouldn’t be built in town, among others. That project would bring in more property tax revenue than the power line.

There are also questions about how the plan will affect electricity prices in the long term, especially for Maine ratepayers. It will be difficult for Maine utilities to compete with Massachusetts’ new source of hydro power, which will be subsidized by that state’s utility customers. If some of these facilities close, prices could rise. At the same time, numerous older, often dirtier power plants in New England are expected to close in coming years. This project would help ameliorate that loss of electricity generation.

The project is supported by Gov. Paul LePage and legislative leaders. Dozens of towns also supported the project, although some have rescinded their support after learning more about it. Public comments received by the commission have been largely negative.

This project would impact Maine utility customers and taxpayers, as well as the state’s economy, for decades to come. Making sure it is a necessity and is beneficial to Maine is a high hurdle to cross. It is also the right one.

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