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PORTLAND, Maine — Central Maine Power anticipated smooth sailing for a proposal for bringing Canadian hydropower into New England after the so-called “Northern Pass” stalled in New Hampshire. After all, CMP already owned the entire path along existing utility corridors and through remote forests.
But more than two years later, the project is still awaiting regulatory approvals, towns along the route are revolting and opponents are pursuing a referendum to stop the project.
The utility’s parent recently formed a political action committee to make the case for the $1 billion project with the expectation that critics will collect enough signatures to put the matter before voters next year.
Jon Reed, who’s heading up the Clean Energy Matters campaign, said the goal is to ensure residents understand the environmental and economic benefits for Maine are real. Furthermore, the full financial cost is being borne by Massachusetts ratepayers.
“It’s one of the largest projects in Maine history. The company has invested a lot to bring this. They’ve invested a lot in permitting. They’ve invested a lot in this future asset that’ll be paid for by ratepayers in another state,” he said.
But critics say CMP underestimated the environmental harm and failed to take into account the impact on homegrown solar, wind and biomass projects in Maine. They also question the long-term gains for Maine ratepayers.
“What it comes down to, Maine is getting a lousy deal,” said Tom Saviello, a former state senator who’s pressing for the referendum vote.
Most of the 145-mile transmission line would follow established utility corridors, and a new swath would be cut through 53 miles of wilderness in western Maine to the Canadian border on land that CMP owns.
The Maine Public Utilities Commission has given its blessing. But the Department of Environmental Protection and Land Use Planning Commission won’t be issuing decisions until after the new year.
Critics already have collected tens of thousands of petitions with a goal of pressing for a statewide vote in November 2020. More than 63,000 valid signatures would have to be submitted by Feb. 3 to make the ballot.
The idea for the New England Clean Energy Connect was conceived to meet Massachusetts’ clean-energy goals and embraced after New Hampshire regulators pulled the plug in 2018 on the Northern Pass project.
But it’s been far from smooth sailing for CMP, and a series of recent miscues have harmed the utility’s public perception.
The proposal was made before CMP came under intense criticism for a botched rollout of a new billing system. The utility was also criticized for its response to a wind storm. In November, CMP was ranked dead last in a nationwide survey of business customers’ opinions of their utility companies by J.D. Power.
CMP’s parent company, Avangrid, has provided $500,000 to the Clean Energy Matters PAC to tout the benefits of the project and to counter hundreds of thousands of dollars spent by opponents.
“We have 120 years of history in Maine. We need to get that trust back,” CMP spokeswoman Catharine Hartnett said.
Maine’s governor, Democrat Janet Mills, remains a supporter of the transmission project after CMP proposed $258 million in incentives, including electric vehicle charging stations, subsidized heat pumps, and rural broadband funding. But she doesn’t plan a public role in the upcoming campaign, said spokeswoman Lindsay Crete.
“She hopes in the coming months Maine people will study the issue closely, learn the facts, and weigh the benefits against the costs. She believes the project, on balance, will benefit the state, strengthen our economy, and protect our environment,” Crete said.
Massachusetts officials are staying out of the fray.
But that state’s Executive Office for Energy and Environmental Affairs continues to insist that the project is good for everyone by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, reducing energy bills and improving winter reliability, among other things.
“Regional energy reliability and affordability affects all Northeast states, and whether it is offshore wind development in southern New England or new clean energy projects in northern New England, these projects will benefit the entire region by lowering our collective reliance on oil and natural gas,” spokeswoman Katie Gronendyke said.