Avangrid executives once hoped to get state permits for their giant power line in western Maine by the end of the year.
That turned out to be wishful thinking. Maine’s Public Utilities Commission issued a new timeline Friday for its review of the 145-mile project, which would bring power from Hydro-Quebec’s dams in Canada to Massachusetts. Now, the commission is shooting for March. This is just the latest delay. A separate review, by state environmental regulators, was already expected to spill well into 2019.
The slowdown has emboldened opponents. This group includes unlikely allies: local power plant owners concerned about competition that’s essentially subsidized by Massachusetts ratepayers, and environmentalists worried about the impact on woodlands and renewable energy sources. With each delay, the critics get more hopeful for a “Northern Pass scenario” — that is, death by regulatory scrutiny.
Avangrid’s Central Maine Power line became the preferred hydro route after a Massachusetts selection team pulled the plug on Eversource’s $1.6 billion Northern Pass through New Hampshire in March. The future of the Eversource line was too tenuous, in particular after state regulators there rejected an essential permit in February.
Maine Governor Paul LePage welcomed the Avangrid project and pledged a speedy review. But LePage leaves office in about two months. None of the candidates to replace him is as thrilled as LePage is about the $950 million project, known as New England Clean Energy Connect. All express some degree of skepticism.
Avangrid spokesman John Carroll plays down the impact of the latest delays. The PUC chairman’s current term, he notes, isn’t scheduled to conclude until the end of March. And federal reviews will continue through 2019, anyway. Carroll says the in-service deadline with Massachusetts of late 2022 will still be met. And he says the commission’s extra scrutiny, prompted by the pile of documents Avangrid recently submitted, will better enable the project to withstand any legal challenges down the line.
But the flood of mostly negative comments into the PUC continued this week. One recurring theme: Maine is getting relatively little in return for hosting a giant extension cord for Massachusetts. Avangrid’s local mitigation package is much smaller than what Northern Pass and a rival project in Vermont offered — although the LePage administration is apparently talking with Hydro-Quebec about possibly sweetening the pot.
Avangrid argues the benefits of this new clean-power source outweigh any negatives, but a similar argument didn’t quite work out in New Hampshire.