Around Maine, the signs are in yards and tacked to telephone poles. TV ads and leaflets supply a steady diet of one-liners. “What do politicians want? More power,” says one. Another, in searing red type: “Massachusetts profits at Maine’s expense.”
The target is a ballot question in Tuesday’s election to decide the fate of a transmission line from Canada through 145 miles of Maine wilderness to New England’s power grid. The issue has inflamed Maine voters and brought record-breaking political spending to the state.
And it will also determine the course of Massachusetts’ effort to stop global warming.
The transmission line would deliver clean hydropower to Massachusetts by 2024, helping the state meet a critical deadline in its climate plan to halve its carbon emissions by the end of the decade.
A vote to scuttle the project, some experts said, would be a stunning setback.
“To the extent that this doesn’t get built, I guess Massachusetts is back to square one on how to meet that” portion of clean energy supply needed to meet the state’s climate target, said Jurgen Weiss, an energy economist and senior lecturer at Harvard Business School. “And there aren’t 10,000 options left.”
Viewed as a bellwether for large climate projects across the country, the long-simmering fight has divided allies and pitted titans against each other. The governors of Maine and Massachusetts endorsed the project, and US Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm weighed in last week, urging voters to support the transmission line.
The @NECEC_ME transmission line will bring clean energy to New England and reduce carbon emissions equivalent to taking 700k cars off the road. I hope Mainers vote NO on ONE to keep this project moving and reliable, affordable, #CleanEnergy flowing!— Secretary Jennifer Granholm (@SecGranholm) October 28, 2021
Here's what's at stake 👇1/3 pic.twitter.com/Cl2DFmbPa9
Environmental groups including the Acadia Center, a nonprofit promoting clean energy, support it, while others, such as the Sierra Club, have come out against it.
Construction on the power line has already begun. Called the New England Clean Energy Connect, it would add 145 miles of new transmission line, connecting to the existing system in Lewiston, and upgrade another 50 miles of existing line. The project is the result of a deal among Hydro-Quebec, the state of Massachusetts, and Central Maine Power, a subsidiary of energy giant Avangrid.
With powerful corporate interests on both sides — Avangrid and HydroQuebec on the one hand, and competing electricity suppliers on the other — Question 1 has triggered high emotions and prolific spending. Maine Public Radio reported that spending on political ads broke records at $60 million.
Recent polling in Maine suggests voters are inclined to kill the project.
That would leave Massachusetts in a difficult spot, experts said. The state is required, under legislation signed earlier this year, to reduce emissions by 50 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. To get there, according to the state’s plan, it must convert one million buildings to electric heat and replace 750,000 vehicles on Massachusetts roads with electric ones. At the same time, it must dramatically increase its use of electricity from renewable sources. The transmission line through Maine is “vital” to Massachusetts’ ability to do that, said Craig Gilvarg, spokesman for the state Energy and Environment Administration.
If voters kill it, the companies behind the project could sue, arguing the referendum was illegal, some supporters said. If that fails, Massachusetts could consider other paths to bring the Canadian energy south. But either option would likely burn valuable time and jeopardize the state’s ability to meet the critical 2030 deadline.
Whatever the outcome in Maine, the hurdles there are being closely watched.
The challenges of passing such large-scale projects represent “one of the single-biggest risks we face as a region and a country to realizing our clean energy targets,” said Alicia Barton, chief executive of FirstLight Power, a clean power producer and energy storage company. “I don’t have the answers for what’s going to change that, but we have to confront that question as a realistic obstacle to what we’re trying to achieve.”
In April, the advocacy group Clean Energy Grid published a report identifying 22 high-voltage transmission projects around the country that could begin construction soon, resulting in a 50-percent increase of national wind and solar generation. But, the group warns the success of those projects relies on timely financing and permitting, as well as federal regulators using their authority to break the “logjams that are preventing large regional and inter-regional lines” from being built.
Jonathan Breed, executive director of Avangrid’s political action committee, Clean Energy Matters, likens the Maine project to a canary in the coal mines for those other projects.
“Fundamentally changing the markets to transition away from oil and gas and toward renewable energy is going to be hard enough from a state policy perspective and an implementation perspective,” he said. “When you have large companies trying to protect their share of the market it’s going to make this even more difficult.”
Part of the promise of the project is that the transmission line would eventually work as a two-way street, allowing electricity to flow to Massachusetts when wind and solar in the state aren’t generating much, and the reverse when Massachusetts produces excess power.
But that’s only if it gets built, and in Maine, the opposition is fierce. “It just feels like we’re a landscape against which Hydro-Quebec and Massachusetts and [Central Maine Power] are deciding to slice a corridor, and it’s not seen as a good deal for Maine people,” said Pete Didisheim, senior director of advocacy for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, which opposes the power line.
Even if the project survives Tuesday’s vote, it faces another hurdle. Avangrid and NextEra, which owns the Seabrook Station nuclear power plant in New Hampshire and has spent millions opposing the transmission line, are currently battling before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission over a key upgrade.
If the project gets killed, Massachusetts can resume the search for another power line from Canada; the last search, which resulted in the Maine route being chosen, also presented a viable option through Vermont. But the delay such an outcome could present would be a sobering signal.
“The pace of transitioning from the current system to one that is essentially no emissions is a steep one for New England, including Massachusetts,” said Weiss.