A Maine jury ruled Thursday that construction can proceed on a transmission line that will carry clean hydropower from Quebec to New England, saving a critical component of Massachusetts’ campaign to shift its electricity consumption away from carbon-emitting fossil fuels.
The jury’s unanimous verdict overturned a 2021 ballot initiative in Maine that had revoked permission for the project with the support of nearly 60 percent of voters. The transmission line, known as the New England Clean Energy Connect, promises to deliver up to 1,200 megawatts of clean electricity to Massachusetts, enough to power approximately 1 million homes.
Clean energy advocates praised the verdict.
“This project has already taken years,” said Phelps Turner, an attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation. “If the project had been canceled, all those years would have been lost.”
After the ballot initiative passed, Maine officials ordered Avangrid, the company building the transmission line, to halt construction. But last August, Maine’s Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the ballot initiative might have violated Avangrid’s rights because the company had already invested $450 million in the project after it was approved by Maine regulators.
The trial, held in business court in Portland, turned on a narrow legal question. Did Avangrid proceed with construction “in good faith” based on the approval it had received from Maine regulators? Or did the company deliberately accelerate construction ahead of the ballot initiative so that it could claim in court that its rights had been violated?
The jury concluded that it was more likely than not that Avangrid had proceeded in good faith based on the prior approval.
The decision clears the way for construction on the 145-mile transmission line to continue, although Maine officials can still appeal.
Amy Boyd, a vice president at Acadia Center, a Maine clean energy advocacy nonprofit, said the transmission line is crucial to meet a 2030 deadline, set by the Massachusetts Legislature, to dramatically reduce climate emissions.
Noting the power capacity of the transmission line is “huge,” Boyd said it could supply between 2 percent and 10 percent of New England’s energy consumption at any given moment. It would also help Massachusetts achieve its ambitious climate goals. Under a law passed in 2020, the state committed to reducing emissions by 50 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. State officials have said the NECEC is “vital” for meeting that target.
“If we get this transmission line and some other dominoes fall the right direction,” Massachusetts could be on track to achieve the 2030 goal, Boyd said. “It would be much harder without the transmission line.”
The project, if completed, will ultimately be paid for by Massachusetts ratepayers.
Turner, of the Conservation Law Foundation, said that bringing clean power into New England could help the region shut down gas-fired power plants and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In Quebec, he said, electricity already comes from predominantly clean sources, whereas in New England approximately half of electricity production comes from burning natural gas.
In Maine, an unlikely alliance of environmentalists and energy companies, some with substantial natural gas interests, promoted the referendum to halt the project, albeit with different motivations.
The environmental groups, including the Natural Resources Council of Maine, argued that the 154-mile transmission line would irreparably damage forest in western Maine, and that the project would not actually reduce greenhouse gas emissions, claiming it would simply divert clean energy from the Canadian grid.
The energy companies — including NextEra Energy, Calpine, and Vistra — will face increased competition if the NECEC is completed. They donated heavily to the environmentalists’ campaign to pass the ballot initiative.
Ari Peskoe, director of the Electricity Law Initiative at Harvard Law School, said the energy companies opposed the project to protect their business interests.
“That existing asset owners will oppose new entry [into the market] is not surprising,” he said. The NECEC, if completed, is expected to reduce energy costs throughout New England, he added.
Elizabeth Boepple, a lawyer representing townships and property owners who oppose the project, said the environmental impacts, including “forest fragmentation” and harm to wildlife, have not been adequately studied. Local businesses will also be harmed, and her clients’ “quality of life would be impacted,” she said.
The Natural Resources Council has argued that Maine should focus on “home-grown” clean energy sources, such as solar and wind projects, a spokesperson said in a statement.
New in-state projects would produce “verifiable reductions in pollution rather than a shell game that shifts existing energy for maximum corporate profit,” the spokesperson said.
The Maine trial was the latest flashpoint in a years-long saga that began in 2016, when the Massachusetts Legislature passed a law instructing electric utilities to bring new hydroelectric or wind power into the state. The utilities first tried to transmit Canadian hydropower to the New England grid through the White Mountains of New Hampshire. But New Hampshire officials nixed that project.
So the utilities, with the backing of former governor Charlie Baker’s administration, turned their attention to the NECEC project in Maine.
After the Maine project received approval from regulators, Avangrid started building. By the time the ballot initiative passed, the company had spent $450 million and cleared a 124-mile path for the new transmission line.
Peskoe, of Harvard Law, acknowledged the project would cause environmental harm. “You can’t do something big without there being some environmental consequences,” he said. “But if we’re going to achieve our [climate] goals, we need to build big projects.”
“This is a nationwide challenge. We need more transmission to connect clean energy resources.”
Rebecca Tepper, the Massachusetts secretary of energy and environmental affairs, said, “The verdict on this project is a critical step in moving Massachusetts forward to securing more affordable, reliable, and clean energy.”
In a statement, the general counsel of Avangrid said, “Even after repeated delays and the costs caused by the change in law, the NECEC project remains the best way to bring low-cost renewable energy to Maine and New England while removing millions of metric tons of carbon from our atmosphere each year.”
Massachusetts state Senator Michael J. Barrett, who has worked on renewable energy issues, said the verdict ”couldn’t come at a better time,” especially in light of delays in the state’s efforts to create offshore wind farms near Martha’s Vineyard.
While the timeline on the project is uncertain, Barrett said that with the court decision, “It’s good to know that clean hydro from Quebec is likely headed our way.”
Mike Damiano can be reached at email@example.com.