Central Maine Power Co. submitted a plan Thursday to build a high-voltage transmission line through western Maine to bring large amounts of hydroelectricity from Quebec to Massachusetts, joining a multibillion-dollar regional competition to develop the next phase of clean-energy projects in New England and eastern Canada.
The 145-mile line would follow a corridor owned by CMP from Beattie Township, on the Canadian border north of Route 27 and Coburn Gore, through Farmington and Jay to Lewiston, where it would connect to the regional electric grid.
The project cost is confidential, but CMP has confirmed that it’s in the $1 billion range. The total cost would be paid by Massachusetts electric customers. Maine would benefit from construction jobs, added tax revenue and anticipated savings on wholesale energy costs over the 20-year life of the power contract.
It’s also possible that a similar line being proposed by CMP and a partner could carry power from new solar and energy-storage projects in western Maine, as well as wind turbines on both sides of the border.
For any of this to happen, Massachusetts and its utilities will have to select at least one of the bids that CMP and its partners formally made Thursday as part of the competition to provide the commonwealth with massive amounts of electricity from new clean-energy sources.
In an interview Wednesday, CMP’s president and chief executive said she was optimistic about being selected by Massachusetts.
“We know how to build this,” said Sara Burns, noting that CMP already owns the corridor and recently completed a larger transmission upgrade – the Maine Power Reliability Program.
Last summer, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker signed a law requiring his state to seek long-term contracts for offshore wind farms and land-based renewable energy. The law calls for 1,600 megawatts of wind energy and 1,200 megawatts from other sources, such as hydro, land-based wind and solar.
A megawatt of generating capacity provides enough energy to serve between 750 and 1,000 homes, CMP says.
Bids for land-based and offshore projects are due Thursday and are expected from projects across New England and eastern Canada, including a handful of other proposals from Maine.
Initial land-based winners are scheduled to be chosen in January. They will be asked to submit long-term contracts in April. Offshore wind winners are to be picked in April, with contracts due next July.
All projects will have to clear extensive environmental and regulatory reviews, as well as public hearings. A transmission project of that scale would likely draw opposition, as did CMP’s Power Reliability Program, which it completed in 2014.
A BENCHMARK FOR REGION’S FUTURE
Whichever proposals win, the Massachusetts process represents a benchmark for New England’s energy future, said Gordon Weil, a former Maine energy office director and public advocate. Massachusetts is the region’s largest power user, he said, and by its actions is leading New England away from fossil fuel generation to an era in which renewables are going to become an important part of the energy mix.
“The course has changed,” said Weil, who worked for years representing large energy users in Canada. “This is the future. The question is, what is it going to cost consumers?”
Weil said that while a transmission line from Quebec through Maine would help Hydro-Quebec increase sales in New England, it wouldn’t serve as a conduit to offer Maine special rates. Gov. Paul LePage has for years insisted that Maine could negotiate discounts, but Weil stressed that Hydro-Quebec sells power in New England at rates that compete with the wholesale electric market.
Burns also made that point.
“There’s really no such thing as the Maine market,” she said. “It’s a New England market.”
CMP’s lead proposal is called New England Clean Energy Connect. Construction would start in 2019, and be online by 2022. The project would feature a transmission line with a capacity of up to 1,200 megawatts of either all hydro or a combination of hydro and wind generated in Canada by Hydro-Quebec, the provincial utility.
CMP estimates that Maine electric customers would save $40 million a year for 20 years, compared with what they would pay if other power sources were used to meet the region’s needs. Burns said more Canadian hydro also would act as a hedge against any future increases in the cost of natural gas, which now fuels half of the region’s power output.
Other benefits include an estimated average of 1,700 jobs a year over the six-year planning and construction period. Communities along the line would see a total of $18 million in new annual tax revenue.
PARTNERS AND COMPETITORS
The CMP project is one of three proposals involving Hydro Quebec, which has been trying for years to establish a new path to sell power into the Northeast. The others are Northern Pass, through the White Mountains of New Hampshire, and TDI New England, with a line under Lake Champlain in Vermont.
A fourth project, the Granite State Power Link, has emerged to bring power from Canada through Vermont and New Hampshire.
Burns expects Massachusetts to pick only one project tied to Quebec’s hydro resources.
CMP also is teaming up with NextEra Energy in a bid to build a high-voltage line to connect wind, solar and battery storage projects in Skinner Township, which is near the start of its proposed transmission line on the Canadian border in western Somerset County. The Maine Clean Power Connection would offer capacity options from 460 megawatts to 1,110 megawatts. It would be completed in 2022.
Aside from CMP’s proposals, other bids are set to come from Maine-based wind projects.
EDP Renewables North America plans to submit a bid for its Number Nine and Horse Mountain wind farms in Aroostook County, which together are rated at 650 megawatts. Pattern Development plans to submit a bid for its 600-megawatt King Pine wind farm, also in Aroostook County.
If chosen, these and other projects will help the region diversify its power mix, locking in long-term contracts at a time when wholesale electric prices are low, said Jeremy Payne, executive director of the Maine Renewable Energy Association.
“These inflation-proof, homegrown resources offer the region the chance to have pricing certainty, job growth, an increase in the property tax base, and even greater energy independence,” he said.
But if large wind farms are chosen, they’re likely to face opposition from residents and citizen groups that don’t to see want large turbines spinning across the landscape.
Chris O’Neil, a spokesman for Friends of Maine’s Mountains, said he was hopeful that Massachusetts would rank land-based wind projects lower in its selection process, because they don’t always run when needed.
“The low-quality wind projects in northern and western Maine can’t generate what New England needs – base load and peak load power,” he said. “They’re likely to score lower, not to mention their long-term permitting and transmission challenges. Hopefully they just won’t be able to compete in the scoring, which will be a bullet dodged by Maine’s economy and environment.”