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Sunday, April 21, 2024

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Hydro-Electric Line from Quebec Can Proceed Against Voters’ Wishes

by Ed Burke and Kelly Burke, Dennis K. Burke Inc.


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Energy companies and environmentalists lose their bid to shut down NECEC

In April, a Maine jury ruled that construction can proceed on a $1 billion clean energy transmission line that will carry hydropower from Quebec to New England. The decision saves a key component of Massachusetts’ goal to cut emissions by 50 percent by the end of the decade.

The transmission line, known as the New England Clean Energy Connect (NECEC), could deliver up to 1,200 megawatts of clean electricity to Massachusetts, which is enough to power approximately 1 million homes.

The jurors ruled 9-0 in favor of the developers and overturned a 2021 ballot initiative in Maine that had revoked permission for the project with the support of 59 percent of Maine voters.

When the Maine project received its initial approval from regulators, Avangrid started working on the project. By the time the ballot initiative passed, the company had already spent $450 million and cleared a 124-mile path for the new transmission line.

After the ballot initiative passed, Maine officials ordered Avangrid, the company building the transmission line, to halt construction.

But last August, Maine’s Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the ballot initiative might have violated Avangrid’s rights because the company had already invested $450 million in the project after it was approved by Maine regulators.

The jurors were asked to decide if Avangrid proceeded with construction “in good faith” based on the approval it had received from Maine regulators. Or, did the company deliberately speed up the construction schedule ahead of the ballot initiative so that it could claim in court that its rights had been violated?

The jury concluded that it was more likely than not that Avangrid had proceeded in good faith based on the prior approval. The decision clears the way for construction on the 145-mile transmission line to continue, although Maine officials can still appeal.

Amy Boyd, a vice president at Acadia Center, a Maine clean energy advocacy nonprofit, said the power capacity of the transmission line could supply between 2 percent and 10 percent of New England’s energy consumption at any given moment.


Massachusetts’ Quest

In 2016, the Massachusetts Legislature passed a law instructing electric utilities to bring new hydroelectric or wind power into the state. It was part of a statewide effort to move away from coal and nuclear as sources of electricity.

The utilities first tried to transmit Canadian hydropower to the New England grid through the White Mountains of New Hampshire. The New Hampshire project was estimated to cost $1.6 billion and cover 192 miles from Pittsburg to Deerfield.

New Hampshire environmental groups argued that the Northern Pass project would be a scar on the state’s face and would damage the character and scenic beauty that attracts tourists here.

New Hampshire’s battle over the high-voltage transmission line ended when the state Supreme Court upheld the Site Evaluation Committee’s 7-0 decision that the project failed to prove “the project would not unduly affect the orderly development of the region,” one of the criteria needed for approval. The committee cited the lack of credible and sufficient evidence presented by Eversource that prevented members from making an informed decision.

It cost Eversource $319 million by the time the utility pulled the plug on the project after the New Hampshire Supreme Court upheld the SEC’s decision.

That’s when the utilities, with the backing of former Massachusetts governor Charlie Baker’s administration, turned their attention to the NECEC project in Maine.

Unlike Northern Pass, the Maine project would have reserved some of the alternative hydro power for Maine residents and the project had the backing of some environmental groups such as The Conservation Law Foundation.


Transmission Line Opposition

In Maine, there were both environmentalists and energy companies who promoted the referendum to halt the project.

Opponents contended that the developers acted in bad faith, speeding up the construction schedule to try to thwart the will of the people in the referendum. Developers said they were keeping to a schedule that was set years earlier.

The environmental groups, including the Natural Resources Council of Maine, argued that the transmission line would irreparably damage forest in western Maine, and that the project would not actually reduce greenhouse gas emissions, claiming it would simply divert clean energy from the Canadian grid.

The energy companies (including the owners of Seabrook Station, NextEra Energy, Calpine, and Vistra) will face increased competition if the NECEC is completed. They donated heavily to the environmentalists’ campaign to pass the ballot initiative.

A lawyer representing townships and property owners who oppose the project, said the environmental impacts, including “forest fragmentation” and harm to wildlife, have not been adequately studied. Local businesses will also be harmed, and her clients’ “quality of life would be impacted,” she said.

Massachusetts state Senator Michael J. Barrett, who has worked on renewable energy issues, said the verdict ”couldn’t come at a better time,” especially considering delays in the state’s efforts to create offshore wind farms near Martha’s Vineyard.

While the timeline on the project is uncertain, Barrett said that with the court decision, “It’s good to know that clean hydro from Quebec is likely headed our way.”

Ultimately the ratepayers of Massachusetts will pay for the Maine transmission line if it is completed, and Hydro-Quebec will receive about $10 billion in revenue over 20 years if the project goes forward.

Ed and Kelly Burke are respectively Chairman of the Board and Senior Marketing Manager at fuel distributor Dennis K. Burke Inc. They can be reached at 617-884-7800 or ed.burke@burkeoil.com and kelly.burke@burkeoil.com.


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