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Feud between energy giants puts state’s climate goals at risk

A proposed 145-mile line is critical to curb the state’s reliance on fossil fuels and reduce emissions, Governor Charlie Baker has said.
A proposed 145-mile line is critical to curb the state’s reliance on fossil fuels and reduce emissions, Governor Charlie Baker has said.Cole Burston/Bloomberg

A proposal to build a $1 billion transmission line to bring hydropower from Canada to Massachusetts has survived years of thorny negotiations and court challenges to win critical state and federal permits. The 145-mile line, Governor Charlie Baker has said, is critical to curb the state’s reliance on fossil fuels and reduce emissions.

But none of that matters if Avangrid, a Connecticut-based subsidiary of a massive Spanish energy company, can’t connect the line to New England’s power grid, which requires expensive upgrades to a critical circuit breaker at the Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant in New Hampshire. Seabrook is owned by NextEra Energy, a Florida company that has taken aggressive action to stop the power line from being built.

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The increasingly bitter feud between the two energy behemoths has now put at risk the state’s ability to comply with its ambitious new climate law, which requires Massachusetts to reduce emissions by 50 percent below 1990 levels by the end of the decade and effectively eliminate them by 2050. It also highlights the complexities the state faces as it tries to clean up a power grid composed of many interconnecting, often competing, players.

“This conflict is symptomatic of a myriad of hurdles facing many large energy infrastructure projects, including green ones,” said Paul Patterson, an analyst at Glenrock Associates, a New York-based energy research firm. “One cannot underestimate how difficult it can be to overcome these hurdles.”

Most recently, the dispute between the companies has devolved into rival complaints filed against each other with regulators, including one that Avangrid lodged with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission — a typically confidential filing the company publicized — in which it alleged that Seabrook poses a threat to public safety if the circuit breaker isn’t upgraded.

NextEra officials allege that their competitor is “whitewashing the real issues” and “jeopardizing the development of renewable energy projects across New England.” Avangrid officials say their rival “chooses to lie” in an effort to protect its fossil fuel business and nuclear power plant.

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NextEra, which also owns a massive oil-fired plant in Maine as well as wind and solar projects around the country, has a history of fighting to protect its turf, including a previous proposal it helped defeat that would have brought the hydropower through New Hampshire.

In Maine, while filing several unsuccessful challenges in court, NextEra has spent nearly $5 million propping up a political action committee called Mainers for Local Power, which opposes the proposed power line that would traverse the North Woods. Much of that money has gone to advertising and promoting a ballot initiative in November that will ask residents to require a two-thirds vote by state lawmakers to approve the power line and others like it.

The conflict between the companies over the circuit breaker at Seabrook stems from a finding last year by ISO New England, the region’s electrical grid operator, that it would have to be upgraded to accommodate the additional hydropower.

That finding gave NextEra new leverage over the project, which Avangrid officials say it’s using to slow construction, if not undermine, the power line.

In October, NextEra asked the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to help resolve the dispute, which company officials said would require Seabrook to shut down for an extended period and mean a significant cost to their company. NextEra estimated it would lose about $560,000 for every day Seabrook must remain offline. The companies dispute how long the work would take.

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“NextEra is more concerned about preserving its bottom line and dirty fossil fuel plants than it is about replacing a critical, 30-year-old breaker,” said Susan Millerick, a spokeswoman for Avangrid, a subsidiary of the Spanish energy giant Iberdrola. “No matter how much NextEra chooses to lie about our clean energy transmission line, their casual attitude is at the core of this issue.”

Avangrid had hoped the circuit breaker upgrades would be completed this year, but that’s no longer likely, and NextEra insists the work is complicated and notes that ISO New England has determined the work wouldn’t be necessary without the power line. The circuit breaker connects and disconnects Seabrook from the region’s electrical grid.

Avangrid officials say they will pay for the work, which could cost as much as $10 million, but say they shouldn’t have to compensate NextEra for the shutdown. The work, they say, could be completed when Seabrook plans to suspend operations to refuel its reactors, which will happen again this fall.

“Avangrid is whitewashing the real issues,” said Steven Stengel, a spokesman for NextEra, who added that the dispute centers on Avangrid’s “refusal to fairly reimburse NextEra. “Avangrid and its Spanish-owned parent Iberdrola are looking for a free ride for its shareholders at the expense of Seabrook Station owners.”

NextEra and other critics of the power line, including prominent environmental advocates in Maine, have long raised doubts about its environmental benefits. In addition to concerns about the potential harm to undeveloped forests, they argue that it would divert hydropower from other regions, which might have to rely on fossil fuels for power, and potentially increase carbon emissions. They also say it could jeopardize the creation of renewable energy projects in Maine.

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But environmental officials in Massachusetts say the hydropower is vital to their ability to meet the requirements of the state’s new climate law.

“The big picture is just how important this is for Massachusetts,” said Kathleen Theoharides, the state’s secretary of energy and environmental affairs. “A key part of our strategy is rapidly shifting to a clean-energy portfolio. . . . The projects we need to build over the next decade are really critical to meeting this.”

Theoharides declined to comment on the dispute between the companies, but she cited claims by Avangrid’s subsidiary, Central Maine Power, that the hydroelectricity would reduce carbon emissions by more than 3.5 million metric tons a year in New England.

“It is a key . . . clean energy resource,” she said.

But there may be other consequences to the influx of power from Quebec, such as the increased economic pressure on aging commercial nuclear power plants such as Seabrook, which also provides 1,200 megawatts of clean power.

Over recent years, similar nuclear plants, such as the Plymouth-based Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station, have been forced to close, as they were unable to compete without state subsidies.

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“Without the region meaningfully valuing the carbon-free attributes that nuclear provides . . . the risks for that plant and others go up dramatically,” said Dan Dolan, president of the New England Power Generators Association, who noted that Massachusetts consumers would be subsidizing the hydropower.

The squabble with Avangrid hasn’t eased the pressure.

After NextEra asked regulators to help settle the dispute in October, Avangrid filed a complaint with FERC, claiming its competitor violated federal law as a result of its “continued obstruction of the project.” In its filing, the company cited “strong circumstantial evidence” that NextEra was colluding with “shadow organizations” to oppose the project.

Avangrid also alleged that NextEra offered to stop fighting the project if the company received a long-term power purchase agreement for electricity from Seabrook. Stengel described those claims as “nothing more than unsupported innuendo” and “emphatically” denied any such offer.

Turning up the pressure, Avangrid filed a complaint in April with the NRC, alleging the antiquated circuit breaker could no longer “perform its intended function.”

The NRC has said it would look into the allegations. NextEra officials said the circuit breaker “meets all industry standards and operates safely.”

They also scoffed at allegations that the NRC’s statement that it would look into the allegations constitutes an investigation. “There is no NRC ‘investigation’ ongoing, and any allegation to the contrary is categorically false,” Stengel said.

NRC officials described their inquiry to the Globe as a “review” to “further understand an issue,” which they’re obliged to do for all safety complaints.

Stengel lambasted Avangrid for using the NRC complaint process to “play reckless public relations games with false allegations about nuclear safety.”

Jon Chesto of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


David Abel can be reached at david.abel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.