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Controversial Maine power line gets final federal permit, but suffers setback in court

The $1 billion project is being financed by contracts to serve Massachusetts electricity customers.

The Jean-Lesage hydroelectric dam is shown on the Manicouagan River north of Baie-Comeau, Quebec, in 2010. A proposed transmission line across western Maine to serve as a conduit for Canadian hydropower just received the green light from the Department of Energy.
The Jean-Lesage hydroelectric dam is shown on the Manicouagan River north of Baie-Comeau, Quebec, in 2010. A proposed transmission line across western Maine to serve as a conduit for Canadian hydropower just received the green light from the Department of Energy.Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press via AP/file

Avangrid has landed the last major permit that the energy company needed to build a 145-mile power line that would bring hydroelectricity from Canada to Massachusetts, through western Maine.

But a major setback arrived before executives at the Orange, Conn.-based company had time to celebrate, after winning a Presidential Permit on Thursday from the US Department of Energy. The First Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday approved an injunction that temporarily prevents any construction on a 53-mile forested portion of the project’s path, a “new corridor” without existing transmission lines.

The whirlwind 24 hours for Avangrid exemplifies the two-steps-forward, one-step-back nature of this massive $1 billion project. Known as the New England Clean Energy Connect, it has divided Mainers: Some see economic benefits, while others worry about a despoiled wilderness. It has also split the environmental community, with some extolling the virtues of hydropower and others decrying the impact on Maine’s North Woods.

Thorn Dickinson, vice president of business development at Avangrid, said the company initially planned to start construction in the new-corridor area. But Avangrid will now shift its crews to locations to the south where it already has existing lines, while waiting for the issue to be resolved in the courts. He said he expects the 1,200-megawatt project to be completed by mid-2023.

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“This project has faced a number of challenges [but] our belief is that the significant economic and environmental benefits really remain strong,” Dickinson said.

Among other benefits from the project, Dickinson pointed to millions of dollars in property taxes, millions more in fiber-optic lines to expand broadband service, and an average of 1,600 construction jobs over the next two years. “Those people … are staying in hotels, eating at restaurants, filling up with fuel,” he said. “The economic stimulus is coming at a time when the state can really use it.”

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But Sue Ely, an attorney with the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said the benefits don’t outweigh the downsides. “Our biggest environmental concern remains: the fragmentation of Maine’s North Woods,” Ely said. “More opposition has grown [as] people have become aware of just how valuable the North Woods are in its current state, for habitat as well as economic activities.”

Ely, whose group was among the plaintiffs that sought a court order to block construction, accused the federal government of rushing the permit process and conducting much of it behind closed doors in coordination with Avangrid’s Central Maine Power subsidiary.

Avangrid dodged a potentially fatal public referendum on the project last year, when a state court decision abruptly ended that effort. But the appellate court ruling on Friday underscores the lingering threats posed by litigation and other opposition efforts from environmental organizations as well as rival power plant owner NextEra.

It’s not lost on many Maine critics that the reason this power line is being built at all is to serve Massachusetts customers.

The project’s financing relies on a clean-energy law passed by the Massachusetts Legislature in 2016 and championed by the Baker administration that requires the state’s three big electric utilities to buy a significant amount of power from offshore wind and dams in Canada.

Eversource initially won the bidding for the power line to connect with Hydro-Quebec facilities, to build its long-planned Northern Pass line through New Hampshire. But permitting problems quickly sank that plan in 2018. Baker’s team, along with Eversource and two other utilities, shifted to the Maine project as a backup. Eversource, National Grid, and Unitil eventually signed 20-year contracts to buy most of the power to be delivered by the NECEC line, on behalf of their Massachusetts customers.

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Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.