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Despite loss in Maine, Avangrid CEO vows to press forward with power line for Massachusetts

Construction continues amid company’s court challenge to the Maine vote

Avangrid CEO Dennis Arriola waited to speak at a forum held by the New England-Canada Business Council at the Seaport Hotel on Friday.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Avangrid chief executive Dennis Arriola vowed on Friday to press ahead with his company’s plans to build a nearly 150-mile transmission line through western Maine to deliver power from Quebec to Massachusetts, despite a majority of Mainers voting against the project this week.

Maine’s referendum vote to block what’s known as the New England Clean Energy Connect project was the talk of an energy conference at the Seaport Hotel in Boston where Arriola spoke Friday. Arriola told the crowd at the event, hosted by the New England-Canada Business Council, that the $1 billion project will deliver clean energy from hydroelectric facilities in Quebec while being “respectful of the local lands where ... the line will go.” He said two-thirds of the project will go along an existing utility right-of-way, while one-third will go through an area used for commercial logging.

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“The argument that this project is doing really bad things to the forest is totally false,” Arriola said during a panel discussion. “The narrative has been manipulated, candidly, by some characters that will be on the losing side of the energy transition.”

Arriola didn’t name the companies, but he was referring to owners of fossil fuel-fired generators who could lose revenue to increased hydropower in New England. Florida-based NextEra — whose sprawling portfolio includes an oil-fired plant in Maine, the Seabrook nuclear plant in New Hampshire, and several solar plants in the region — spent $20 million to bankroll the referendum effort; power plant owners Vistra and Calpine also chipped in.

The threat of voters blocking the project has loomed since construction began in January. That’s why Avangrid and its Canadian partner, dam owner Hydro-Quebec, spent tens of millions on a campaign to unsuccessfully fight Tuesday’s referendum. On Wednesday, Avangrid sued to overturn the vote in state court, arguing the ballot language was unconstitutional, in large part because it would retroactively rescind state approvals that had already been granted.

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“The people of Maine have been disinformed,” Arriola said. “We’re going to challenge it because we believe it’s the right thing to do. When you look at what we need in this country, we don’t just need renewables. We don’t just need battery storage. ... We need a lot of transmission to transport the clean energy to where it is needed.”

The NECEC project is a key piece of Governor Charlie Baker’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It was set in motion by a 2016 clean energy law passed by the Massachusetts Legislature, and Avangrid subsequently won the bidding for utility contracts to finance the line.

Arriola said the construction is continuing and remains on pace to be completed at the end of 2023; the Orange, Conn.-based company has spent $450 million so far on the project, and already erected more than 120 monopoles. The line would bring as much as 1,200 megawatts of electricity to a substation in Lewiston, Maine, where the power could flow into the regional grid.

“I know from conversations I’ve had with the governor of Massachusetts, they’re counting on it,” Arriola said in an interview after his presentation.

Hydro-Quebec executive Dave Rheaume also spoke on the panel, focusing on the broader need for hydroelectricity to balance out wind and solar power, particularly for when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining.

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“We believe we have the potential to be the battery of the Northeast,” Rheaume said.

But there are many Mainers who don’t want to see their state become home to what they view as a giant extension cord, running through the state’s woodlands to benefit Massachusetts. Colin Durrant, a spokesman for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said in an e-mail that Arriola’s insistence on plowing ahead shows “the sort of disrespect for Maine people we’ve come to expect from executives at Avangrid.”


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