A proposal to transport hydropower from Canada to the state of Maine has created enough “hoohah” to launch a fierce court battle – possibly signalling trouble for the future of green energy projects across the U.S., the BBC reports.
New England Clean Energy Connect (NECEC) was supposed to be an industry-leading project, transporting 1,200 megawatts of Canadian hydropower to Massachusetts across 233 km of transmission line, and eliminating over three million metric tonnes of carbon emissions every year.
The $1-billion project, funded by utility company Hydro-Quebec and Central Maine Power (CMP), which is owned by the Spanish energy giant Avangrid, received final approvals, including a presidential permit from the U.S. Department of Energy. Construction began in January 2021.
Now, the hydropower project could be dead in the water, after a majority of Mainers voted to cancel it last November.
The legality of that referendum, as well as the lease for a one-mile stretch of public lands, is before the Maine Supreme Court, which could issue its decision any day.
If the court sides with opponents, and the corridor is not allowed to proceed as planned, Hydro-Quebec could lose out on $10 billion in future revenue from this project.
It could also signal trouble for the future of other clean energy projects in the U.S., at a time when many states are trying aggressively to green their power grid to offset the effects of climate change and rising fuel costs.
“We can’t succeed if every wind project, every solar energy project, every hydro project… is going to become challenged,” said Orlando Delogu, a professor emeritus at the University of Maine School of Law who supports the corridor and has worked as an adviser in the fight over the project.
But the project received pushback from the start. Tom Saviello, a former state senator, got involved with the opposition in 2018.
“For that kind of deal, it wasn’t worth it. I wanted Maine to be treated right and it (was not),” he said. “We’re giving up a lot for getting nothing.”
In Maine – a state where some say you are not considered a local unless you were born there – Saviello was wary of a project that seemed chiefly geared to benefit a Canadian utility and the state’s southern neighbour of Massachusetts, which signed a 20-year contract with NECEC’s backers to receive the bulk of the power.
The project did include a plan that would help power about 70,000 Maine homes, providing a $2.72 reduction in monthly energy bills.
Those in opposition have disputed the benefits and monthly savings estimate, arguing it would be pennies.
About two-thirds of the corridor would build on existing transmission lines, with an extension planned to run 85 km through Maine’s North Woods, including the short stretch through public land being contested in court.
Proponents of the project say it is the shortest route and most environmentally sound way to connect Quebec, where the hydropower is generated, to Massachusetts. It received all necessary approvals, and independent analyses of the proposal found it would reduce emissions in the region.
But several environmental groups have expressed concern about the ecological impact on the North Woods, and have called into question whether the energy will be as clean as advertised.
Saviello said it did not help that Hydro-Quebec had partnered with CMP, which has had a number of public relations gaffes in the state, including allegations of overbilling and major outages.
Market research firm JD Power has ranked the company last out of 88 utilities in the U.S. for customer satisfaction.
“They have a lousy reputation,” Saviello said. “Do you want somebody like that running a big project like that?”
In a statement, CMP said it has a record of success on major energy projects, including completing the largest transmission project in Maine on time and under budget in 2015, and has improved customer service.
Construction on the corridor began despite court challenges. Meanwhile, opponents were mounting a legislative challenge with a state-wide referendum on whether the project should be allowed to go forward.
It came to a head last winter, when more than 400,000 Mainers turned up to cast their vote, no small feat in a state whose total population is just 1.3 million. It was the second-highest voter turnout on a referendum in the state’s history, surpassed only by the 2012 referendum on gay marriage.
People on both sides of the debate lobbied aggressively to make their case. By the time the issue came to voters, it was the most expensive ballot question in the state’s history.
The referendum battle cost over $100 million, according to the Maine Ethics Commission, which tracks political spending. Those in favour of the project raised about $82 million, mostly coming from Avangrid, Hydro-Quebec, and CMP.
Some of the biggest donors to the opposition came from fossil-fuel companies. Energy firm NextEra gave over $20 million, most of which was spent on television advertising. While the company supplies green energy elsewhere, in Maine it mostly delivers oil and gas. NextEra did not respond to a request for comment.