The hottest clean-energy contest currently underway in New England doesn’t involve offshore wind farms, at least not this time. Instead of the waters south of Martha’s Vineyard, this race to tap into wind energy is taking shape in the sparsely populated timberlands of Northern Maine.
And the state of Massachusetts has suddenly emerged as a key player.
Tucked in the back of the clean-energy bill the Legislature approved on July 31 and sent to Governor Charlie Baker for his signature is a provision that would allow Massachusetts to team up with Maine in bids for renewable energy projects. The focus is on an area in Aroostook County that is so remote, it’s not even technically part of New England’s electricity grid.
The language doesn’t spell out Maine or Aroostook County by name. It doesn’t have to. But it gives the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources the green light to join with another New England state on a bid for wind, solar or other forms of renewable energy, as long as the generation sources are new and the winner is picked by the end of this year. One contest fits the bill, one that Maine officials launched earlier this year to spur clean-energy projects in Northern Maine. This dual-pronged competition would procure power from a future wind farm and/or solar farm on behalf of electricity customers, along with a parallel effort to pick a developer that could build a transmission line to bring that power into the New England grid and closer to population centers. Maine regulators are expected to pick winners this fall.
Plans for large wind farms in Aroostook County — which wraps around the northern tip of Maine along the Canadian border — have kicked around for years. The biggest stumbling block: getting that energy into the rest of New England. Maybe this contest can solve that problem.
It was set in motion by a 2021 Maine law sponsored by Senate President Troy Jackson, a fifth generation logger who represents Aroostook County. He sees it as a way of spurring much-needed economic development and infrastructure investment in his home county, while helping Maine meet its aggressive goals to reduce carbon emissions.
Earlier this year, proponents saw the potential for more buying power — which could, in turn, help finance more wind turbines — if Massachusetts ratepayers joined in. At least three interested energy companies hired lobbyists to work Beacon Hill on their behalf. Longroad Energy hired Brian Dempsey in February, while Clearway Energy Group tapped ML Strategies in April. Both Longroad and Clearway are trying to build a wind farm in Aroostook County, as is EDP Renewables. New York utility Con Edison, meanwhile, hired Preti Strategies, in April for help with its “Maine Power Link” transmission proposal; it’s the only power line developer that has gone public with its plans, though Maine Electric Power Co. and LS Power are rumored to be in the mix.
So what’s in it for Massachusetts? Much like our neighbors to the north, we have ambitious plans to reduce greenhouse gases: By 2030, state officials want to cut emissions by 70 percent from 1990 levels in the power sector alone, with an eye toward achieving an 80-percent reduction in overall carbon emissions by 2050.
These plans are off to a slow start. Six years ago, Massachusetts lawmakers voted to require utilities to hold clean-energy contests for offshore wind construction and for a gigantic power line to tap into Canadian hydropower. But federal bureaucracy repeatedly delayed the first offshore wind farm, Vineyard Wind, and on-shore construction work is only now underway. And Maine voters last fall rejected a power line that Avangrid wants to build to connect with Hydro-Quebec, in a referendum financed in large part by rival power plant owner NextEra, though that vote is being challenged in Maine’s Supreme Judicial Court.
Meanwhile, New England remains heavily reliant on natural gas. On a warm summer afternoon this week, nearly 70 percent of New England’s electricity came from natural gas power plants, with only 10 percent from hydropower, wind or other renewables.
The two Massachusetts lawmakers who led the clean-energy bill negotiations, Representative Jeff Roy and Senator Mike Barrett, are well aware of all of this. It’s a big reason why Senator Barry Finegold received a receptive audience when he proposed the provision to have Massachusetts team up with Maine as an amendment to the bill — and it’s why the measure made the final cut.
Barrett and Roy both note that the measure allows the Baker administration to join Maine in the bidding but doesn’t mandate it. It also sets certain criteria such as being cost effective for Massachusetts ratepayers, for example.
Roy said he was assured by Jackson, the top Maine lawmaker, that a power line through eastern Maine for domestic wind power, to serve Mainers, would be more widely embraced than the controversial power line that Avangrid proposed to carry Canadian hydropower through western Maine specifically for Massachusetts.
If the two states join forces, they could together purchase up to 1,200 megawatts of clean energy, similar to what would be pumped through Avangrid’s now-stymied line. That kind of wattage would normally power more than a million homes. But wind is intermittent, and on-shore wind farms can only be relied on for roughly one-third of that amount. So the Aroostook County projects don’t represent a perfectly even trade for the hydropower line.
And even if that troubled transmission project gets back on track, Barrett and Roy say they would still welcome an assist from Aroostook County. Yes, offshore wind turbines are finally on the horizon. But they know New England needs all the renewable electricity it can get at this point.
Jon Chesto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.