The federal government will have more control over large electric grid expansions under a little-noticed portion of the sweeping infrastructure law, potentially letting it override state decisions on large projects such as Maine’s stalled hydropower corridor.
The $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill signed by President Joe Biden in November gives the federal government more power to identify where new clean-energy corridors are needed in the “national interest” to expand grids and reduce transmission congestion. Utilities and the groups managing regional grids would still be in charge of any expansions, but the ramped-up law could fast-track projects in designated areas.
Details of how the provision might be used have not emerged. It is not clear how or if it will affect the $1 billion New England Clean Energy Connect project that voters rejected in a November referendum. But the idea of an expanded federal role in this arena is already generating concern in Maine, where the corridor is a main sticking point in state politics.
“There’s no pressing public interest and certainly not at the federal level for the Biden administration to involve itself and overturn the will of Maine people in such an egregious fashion,” Sen. Rick Bennett, R-Oxford, a vocal opponent of the hydropower project, said.
The infrastructure package comes amid a national push for more clean power. ISO New England, the region’s grid operator, has warned for decades that the area needs more power from a variety of power sources. Last week, it warned that New England could see the first rolling power outages this winter because of tight supplies of natural gas, which is used heavily to power the grid, and global shortages.
The need for clean energy coupled with legal and regulatory controversy over the hydropower corridor, has caused its share of political consternation. Gov. Janet Mills supports the hydropower corridor led by Central Maine Power Co. and its affiliates, but she asked its operators to stop construction after the public vote. A Maine regulator subsequently suspended its permit for the project.
The Democratic governor’s administration does not know any details of the federal corridor provision beyond what the infrastructure bill says and “cannot speculate about how it would respond to a possible designation in the future,” Anthony Ronzio, a spokesperson for Mills’ energy office, said.
Controversy over the corridor was stirred up again when U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, who took to Twitter before the November election to urge Mainers to support the corridor, referred to the new provision corridors of national interest in a newspaper interview.
“We’re going to sharpen our pencils and see how we can continue to help push that,” she told The Boston Globe. The energy department did not respond to a request to elaborate on the secretary’s comments.
Bennett decried Granholm’s comments and said the Maine Constitution protects public lands in the state and requires a two-thirds vote of the Legislature to change anything, arguing the federal government “can’t just take them by eminent domain.”
The federal provision updates the Federal Energy Policy Act of 2005, which allowed the U.S. Department of Energy to designate strategic corridors. But a 2009 federal court ruling found that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which regulates interstate transmission of electricity, did not have the authority to overturn state regulators’ rejection of those designated power lines.
The Biden plan largely restores the power of the two federal energy entities. FERC could tell the regional transmission organizations to build the lines, but conflicts could arise when it comes to acquiring rights to the property on which to build them, Tony Buxton, a lawyer who represents the pro-corridor Industrial Energy Consumers’ Group, said.
“That’s when we would get into a conflict with state and federal law,” he said. “It’s very complex stuff with a lot of obvious local resistance issues.”
Opposition to the new provision is both national and local. The National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, the trade association representing state utility regulators, said it effectively allows federal eminent domain powers, saying it “is deeply troubled by this unnecessary pre-emption of state jurisdiction.”
The change comes amid a dire need for more energy that is bringing more urgency to federal control of energy corridors, Rob Gramlich, president of Grid Strategies and an economic policy analyst on the electric transmission and power markets, said.
“I think every [power] line in the country has a significant potential for the DOE to approve it,” he said.