Bruce Mohl Jul 7, 2020
CORPORATE SURROGATES for Massachusetts have spent close to $17 million so far battling a referendum question in Maine that seeks to block the importation of hydroelectricity from Quebec using a power line running through wilderness areas in the western part of the state.
The referendum battle is in some ways the dark underbelly of a push for clean energy in Massachusetts. Two years ago, after regulators in New Hampshire nixed a similar power line running through the White Mountains, Massachusetts struck a deal with a Maine utility and Hydro-Quebec to run a 145-mile transmission line from the Quebec border down to Lewiston, where it would feed into the regional power grid.
The deal would give Massachusetts relatively cheap renewable energy while leaving all of the environmental impact in Maine. Pete Didisheim, advocacy director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said many residents in his state are seething with anger at how Massachusetts could force this unwanted project on them.
“The Massachusetts component of this project really gets in people’s craw,” Didisheim said. “We’re just the landscape across which this extension cord will go.”
Didisheim said the three utilities who negotiated the contract on behalf of the state of Massachusetts should have gone with a similar proposal in Vermont that would have run the power line from Quebec underneath Lake Champlain and underground where it came ashore. Didisheim said the three Massachusetts utilities, with the blessing of the Baker administration, went with the cheaper option running the power line above ground in Maine.
The power line through Maine won a key permit from the Maine Public Utilities Commission in May 2019, a decision that was upheld this year on an appeal to the courts. The referendum question seeks to overturn the commission’s decision and deny the permit.
The key players behind the project are Central Maine Power, a utility owned by Avangrid Renewables, which in turn is owned by a Spanish company, and Hydro-Quebec, a utility owned by the province of Quebec. A group calling itself Clean Energy Matters has spent $10.5 million to back the project and defeat the referendum – with almost all the money coming from Avangrid and Central Maine Power. A second group, called Hydro-Quebec Maine Partnership, has spent $6.2 million, with all of the money coming from Hydro-Quebec.
The message of project proponents is centered around the economic and environmental benefits of the project. Building the power line will generate 1,600 construction jobs, increase the state’s gross domestic product by $573 million, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions in New England by 3 million metric tons. There are also benefits tied directly to the project — $6 million for education programs, $140 million for electric rate relief, $200 million for the energy grid, and $15 million each for electric vehicle infrastructure, heat pumps, and broadband infrastructure in western Maine.
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