Maine Public | By Fred Bever
Published May 18, 2021 at 4:03 PM EDT
There was early momentum Tuesday for what could be Maine's next big transmission project linked to renewable energy goals, this one in Aroostook County. The latest plan, as envisioned in legislation before the utilities committee, got a positive review at the State House.
Energy analysts say the County has some of the state's best potential for developing cost-effective wind and other renewable energy resources. But the area lacks a major transmission connection to the regional electricity grid, relying instead on energy routed through Canada.
Now lawmakers are considering a bill that aims to get a power line built to unlock that potential and bring cost-effective renewable energy to Maine and beyond.
"Aroostook County is really leaning into this. We've been waiting for decades to produce our renewable energy up here and get it to the markets where it's needed," says Paul Towle, president of the Aroostook Partnership, a public-private economic development group.
He says county residents are generally supportive of developing big energy infrastructure. And he says this one — costing as much as a half-billion dollars — would be less contentious than the New England Clean Energy Connect transmission line in western Maine.
"This would fly through pretty seamlessly in my prediction. The ensuing projects promise to generate millions in economic benefits to a much-needed area in northern Maine through jobs, payroll taxes, local taxes, etc. And climate advantages obviously (are) there — we all know what we're doing this stuff for," he says.
Towle was one of dozens of area residents, renewable energy developers and others supporting the measure in a Utilities Committee hearing.
Introduced by Senate President Troy Jackson — of Aroostook County — the bill would order state regulators to solicit bids to build the transmission line, as well as bids for developing wind, solar and biomass energy to supply its wires with renewable energy.
Tony Buxton, an energy attorney who represents Clearway Energy, says after years of rising demand, renewable generation developers are looking for creative ways to finance a high-capacity Aroostook County transmission line.
"The moment of opportunity is now. The Biden infrastructure plan is proposing a 30% investment tax credit for transmission rather than something for solar and wind and so on. And that would reduce the cost of any transmission line equivalent to tax-exempt financing," he says.
Buxton estimates that typical ratepayers in Central Maine Power or Versant's territory might pay an additional 70 cents a month on their utility bills to pay off construction costs.
Regulators, he says, would have to weigh that against potential savings from the influx of renewable energy, at a time when it's in high demand as governments try to end reliance on fossil fuels.
"There's no cheaper power in Maine than the power that will come out of Aroostook county wind projects. Anywhere," he says.
Buxton says Maine should try to hold onto that value for its ratepayers.
The administration of Gov. Janet Mills, though, says lawmakers should consider ways that the project might be geared to a more regionalized clean-energy effort, which would allow costs to be spread among ratepayers throughout New England.
And Melissa Winne, an analyst in the Governor's Energy Office, also raised concerns that as written the bill might give too much emphasis on procuring biomass energy generation.
"Given the other components for consideration, including cost-effective, meeting the statutory energy and climate goals and economic benefits to northern Maine, we have some questions about this additional technology requirement. We do support a fully competitive bid process that will allow the greatest benefits to Maine people," Winne says.
There was no testimony against the measure — that's unusual for a major energy project being proposed in Maine.
AUGUSTA, Maine – Maine’s Senate President Troy Jackson, D- Allagash, began a public hearing in the Legislature’s Committee on Energy, Utilities, and Technology Tuesday morning with a call to action.
“I believe it is critical that we take action and seize this economic and environmental opportunity,” he said.
Jackson spoke of an opportunity to capitalize on renewable energy resources in his home district in Aroostook County. On Tuesday, Jackson introduced L.D. 1710, An Act To Require Prompt and Effective Use of the Renewable Energy Resources of Northern Maine.
“We’re all Mainers and what’s good for one part of Maine is good for all of Maine,” he said.
The bill would establish the Northern Maine Renewable Energy Development Program, to be administered by the Maine Public Utilities Commission (PUC) to remove obstacles to the use of and promote the development of renewable energy resources in northern Maine.
The program would build a transmission line to connect northern Maine to the ISO-New England system.
According to the bill, the PUC is required to come to a contractual agreement with one or more transmission and distribution utilities for the construction of the transmission line or lines.
On Tuesday, Jackson’s introduction of the bill was followed by several hours of public testimony. No one testified against the proposed legislation.
“Northern Maine, I’ve always argued, has been in a recession or a depression for perhaps 50 years or more,” committee chairman Sen. Mark Lawerence, D-Eliot, said.
Lawerence said that including the northern part of the state in future economic, energy, and technology plans is one of his priorities for the committee this session.
Paul Towle, the president of the Aroostook Partnership, testified that the project is one of the largest economic opportunities ever in his region.
“We’ve been waiting for decades for an opportunity to produce our renewable energy up here and get it to the markets where it’s needed,” he said.
Anthony Hourihan of Irving Woodland said many renewable energy projects are ready to break ground, but argued it does not make financial or logistical sense for one individual project to construct its own transmission line.
The most efficient method, he and others said, would have all renewable energy projects and utilities use the transmission line proposed in the legislation.
Anthony Buxton of Clearway Energy said Aroostook County is the best onshore wind resource available “to Maine, and frankly to New England.”
“There is no cheaper power in Maine that will come out of Aroostook County wind projects, anywhere. [Renewable energy is a] great resource in Aroostook County, we just can’t get it out,” he said.
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