Under Sea and Over Land: CMP & others bidding for new transmission lines across Maine

Massachusetts’ demand for clean energy has drawn interest from several companies hoping to win lucrative contracts to transmit wind and hydro power from Maine, Atlantic Canada and Quebec. The utilities National Grid, Eversource and Unitil, along with the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources, are considering dozens of bids, including Maine-based proposals that would entail overland transmission lines and at least two undersea cables running through the Gulf of Maine to the Bay State. 

By law, Massachusetts electricity customers will pay for the cost of construction of the projects, which will make Massachusetts one of the top renewable energy consuming states in the country. It will also help solve the problem of connecting renewable energy projects, which are often sited in remote rural locations, to more urban, high-demand centers, said Central Maine Power CEO Sara Burns at a forum last week in Portland sponsored by the Environmental and Energy Technology Council of Maine (E2Tech).

“I think one of the most common issues in the state of Maine, regardless of which project you’re talking about, is whether we can export energy out of Maine,” said Burns, whose company has submitted two transmission proposals. “In order to bid into the Massachusetts RFP, you have to show evidence that you can deliver the energy. There are constraints in the Maine system and all that means is that we have more energy to move than we have the ability to move it.”

This latest Clean Energy RFP is a result of a new Massachusetts law requiring the state to procure 1,200MW of hydro power, onshore wind and solar, and 1,600MW of offshore wind to achieve ambitious carbon-reduction targets. The winning bids will be eligible for 15- to 20-year contracts to provide power to the state starting in 2022. Currently only 10 percent of New England’s electrical generation comes from renewable energy sources, but the new renewable energy projects will help replace the 30 percent of New England’s electricity generators fleet that are scheduled to go off line in the next decade. Each new megawatt of renewable energy is enough to power 750 to 1,000 homes, according to CMP. Massachusetts will announce the winning bidders on January 25, 2018.

The Massachusetts Clean Power Express

There are number of clean energy proposals that would bring hydro and wind power from Quebec over transmission lines through Vermont, New York, New Hampshire, and Maine. Maine transmission bids include two CMP proposals from Quebec through western Maine and the Maine Power Express (MPX) from Aroostook County down to Searsport and underwater to Boston. Most of the bids have not made the costs of the projects publicly available for proprietary reasons. 

MPX’s proposal, developed by NRG Energy and Con Edison, would bring 630 megawatts of power from NRG Energy’s County Line Wind Project in Southern Aroostook County through a 103-mile underground 1,040MW High Voltage Direct Current (HVDC) transmission line to Searsport. The line would follow an existing energy corridor that runs from Searsport to the former Loring Air Force Base in Limestone. The 50-foot right-of-way was developed in the 1950s to host an underground pipeline to provide jet fuel to Bangor Airport, but it is currently being used by Bangor Natural Gas to pipe natural gas to Lincoln. From Searsport, the MPX line would then run 200 miles under the ocean to the Massport Conley Terminal in Boston. 

Some wind companies are also hoping to connect to CMP and Emera’s proposal to build a 69-mile overhead transmission line to connect northern Maine wind projects from a substation in Chester to the companies’ joint MEPCO transmission system in Pittsfield. But speaking at the E2Tech event last week, MPX project manager Ryan Gahagan argued that the advantage of going underwater is that the company has control of the site in Searsport and it bypasses the need to fix constraints in overhead transmission lines. 

“Basically what this project does is it helps to release a lot of those stranded wind resources that are looking for significant transmission to get to market,” said Gahagan. “We think if we do this infrastructure, it will increase reliability, sustainability, [and] offset emissions.”

Gahagan said the undersea leg of the project would be about two feet under the silt in a 5- to 8-inch-wide trench. He said MPX will work with Army Corps of Engineers and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on the part that will be in federal waters. MPX is also working with a number of other stakeholders and government agencies, including Maine Lobstermen’s Association, Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association and Conservation Law Foundation, among others. 

“We want to have a wide variety of stakeholders involved in determining how to run this line through Penobscot Bay,” he said. “We’re very, very early in the stage of proposing a project like this. While we have met with a lot of state agencies, we have a lot of time to hear from a lot of people before any decision is made on a project like this.”

Gahagan said the project could potentially also add additional wind resources from Canada, but that it wouldn’t be cost-effective to provide an on-ramp for offshore wind projects in Maine waters. The company estimates that the project will create 640 direct jobs and bring in about $150 million in property taxes for Maine and $120 million for Massachusetts. 

The utility Emera has also submitted its Atlantic Link bid, which would entail running a 370-mile cable under the ocean from New Brunswick and Nova Scotia to deliver wind and hydro power to Massachusetts.

CMP has submitted two bids — the New England Clean Energy Connect (NECEC) and the Maine Clean Power Connection (MCPC). NECEC would finally achieve Gov. Paul LePage’s goal of creating a transmission route to bring Quebec’s hydro power to the New England grid. The high-voltage HVDC line would run 145 miles from the Canadian border in northern Franklin County to a converter station in Lewiston, delivering 1,200 megawatts of hydro power to Massachusetts through the existing regional grid. NECEC is one of three transmission proposals to bring Canadian hydro to New England. Burns said that the project would require upgrades on the system, but that the company already owns 94 miles of the route north of Lewiston, as it once served CMP-owned hydro plants it sold several years ago. The company also quietly acquired the 50-mile leg to Quebec over the past three years.

“When you look long-term, we believe there will be a line to Quebec in the future,” said Burns. 

The company says the project will create 1,700 construction jobs, boost economic growth by $20 million, reduce C02 emissions by 1.4 million metric tons and provide about $18 million in tax benefits to the towns along the transmission route. 

CMP and NextEra Energy’s MCPC bid would also run 140 miles from the Canadian border to Lewiston, but would offer a number of energy options including wind or wind with solar and energy storage. Burns noted that CMP is competing with 49 other proposals, but that providing a “cafeteria plan” of energy options and the fact that CMP already owns the right-of-way for the transmission line will give it an advantage in the selection process. 

“It is the shortest route, we believe, of any of the major projects,” she added. “It has a minimal impact on the environment. Very importantly, you’ve all paid for the 90-mile right-of-way….We think it’s critical that we use what ratepayers have already paid for and maximize the value of that.”

The Critics Respond

However, CMP’s proposal is already running into opposition from anti-wind activists and some residents along the route of the proposed transmission line. Chris O’Neil of the anti-wind group Friends of Maine Mountains argues a better option is Eversource Energy’s controversial Northern Pass project, which aims to connect southern New England to Quebec’s hydro power plants by running a 192-mile transmission line through northern New Hampshire.

“The Northern Pass HVDC line ... can essentially fulfill the entire RFP singlehandedly,” wrote O’Neil in an email. “Why waste years, money, and mountains on sprawling wind projects that cannot deliver the goods even after they get location permits? This could and should be another dodged bullet for Maine. A low-profile, high-performing project like Northern Pass simply blows the wind projects away, and it should win the competition hands down.”

Northern Pass has cleared several regulatory hurdles and New Hampshire regulators are scheduled to give their final decision on the project in six months.

ReVision Energy attorney Steve Hinchman, who has fought against building out transmission lines in favor of less expensive non-transmission distributed energy alternatives like solar and battery storage to meet peak electricity demand, roasted CMP at the E2Tech forum. In an exchange with Burns, Hinchman noted that one of CMP’s primary arguments for building its recently completed the massive $1.6 billion Maine Power Reliability Program (MPRP) transmission upgrade was to solve transmission constraints and move wind power out of Maine. 

“So pardon me if I and many others here aren’t taking your current statements at face value because fool me once,” said Hinchman. “If this project is actually able to solve that constraint and they’re able to move the wind out of Maine into load centers south of us, and you profit from that, do you think CMP owes New England ratepayers any sort of savings from the $1.6 billion we spent on the MPRP that we didn’t achieve on the two primary reasons for building it?”

Burns bristled at Hinchman’s description of the company’s aims, replying, “So MPRP was never sold as fixing constraints. The MPRP was reliability of the system. And where most of the wind is, is not where the load is. The wind is where there is no load. You don’t spend a lot of money on your system and charge all the ratepayers to get to that wind.”

Hinchman called Burns’ explanation “revisionist history.” In fact, CMP’s website states that the MPRP is designed “to keep the system operating reliably” and to “provide the infrastructure for the state’s emerging wind, hydro, biomass, and tidal energy industries.” In the Maine PUC’s 2010 settlement agreement on the MPRP, regulators stated that the project “meets the State’s reliability needs ... and when looked at as a whole, will benefit Maine ratepayers when all relevant factors, including electrical need, economics and the promotion of indigenous renewable resources, are considered.”

Although wholesale electricity prices dropped to the lowest level in 12 years, according to regional grid operator ISO New England estimates, the cost of transmission and distribution has steadily risen over the past decade.


SEP 14 2017
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