January 30, 2023
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Canadian Hydropower Destined for U.S. Hits a Roadblock in Maine


RADISSON, CANADA — A whole lot of ft under a distant forest close to the Hudson Bay, Serge Abergel inspected the spinning generators on the coronary heart of the largest subterranean energy plant on the earth, a large facility that converts the water of the La Grande River right into a present of renewable electrical energy robust sufficient to energy a midsize metropolis.

Mr. Abergel, a senior government at Hydro Quebec, has for years been engaged on an bold effort to ship electrical energy produced from the river down by the woods of northern Maine and on to Massachusetts, the place it might assist the state meet its local weather objectives.

But at present, work on the $1 billion venture is at a standstill.

Over the previous few years, an unlikely coalition of residents, conservationists and Native People waged a rowdy marketing campaign funded by rival vitality corporations to quash the hassle. The opponents received a significant victory in November, when Maine voters handed a measure that halted the venture. Following a authorized struggle, proponents appealed to the state Supreme Courtroom, which is able to hear arguments on the case on Might 10 about whether or not such a referendum is authorized.

At stake is a couple of transmission line. The fiercely contested venture is emblematic of fights occurring across the nation, as plans to construct clear vitality infrastructure run into opposition from residents proof against new improvement, preservationists and different corporations with their very own financial pursuits at stake.

“On the finish of the day, everybody may need extra transmission for renewable vitality,” mentioned Timothy Fox, vp at ClearView Power Companions, an impartial analysis agency. “However nobody desires it of their yard.”

The venture in Maine, often called New England Clear Power Join, or NECEC, is the form of large-scale, clean-energy infrastructure that can be required if the US is to shift away from fossil fuels — a transition scientists say is urgently wanted as a way to stop additional catastrophic local weather change. In keeping with a significant examine by Princeton College, the nation should triple its transmission capability by 2050 to have an opportunity at reaching its objective of not including any extra carbon dioxide to the ambiance by that time.

For years, all the pieces in Maine was going in keeping with plan.

State and federal regulators carefully studied the venture and gave approvals at each stage. Governors in Massachusetts and Maine have been on board.

And Hydro Quebec and Avangrid, its companion on the venture that can function the transmission traces and tools within the U.S., spent tons of of hundreds of thousands of {dollars} readying development and putting in the primary 78 of greater than 832 new high-voltage transmission poles that may permit vitality produced in northern Canada to maintain the lights on in Boston.

However there was resistance to the venture virtually from the beginning. Maine residents, annoyed by years of poor service by Central Maine Energy, an area utility owned by Avangrid, discovered widespread trigger with environmental organizations skeptical of hydropower.

These native teams discovered deep-pocketed supporters in three vitality corporations that function pure fuel and nuclear crops within the area and which stood to lose cash if cheaper hydropower entered the New England grid.

After opponents bought a referendum query in regards to the venture on final November’s poll, each side threw cash on the situation, spending greater than $100 million — a file for a Maine initiative — on a slugfest that tied the transmission venture to sizzling button points like gun rights and the Inexpensive Care Act.

Although Hydro Quebec and Avangrid outspent the opposition by a margin of three to 1, residents weren’t offered on the deserves of the venture. On Election Day, 59 p.c of Maine voters accepted a measure that introduced work on the NECEC to a screeching halt, at the very least in the intervening time.

If the Maine Supreme Courtroom sides with Hydro Quebec and Avangrid, work on the venture may resume and electrical energy might be flowing from the reservoirs of Canada into the New England grid as quickly as 2024.

But when the NECEC is scrapped, it would symbolize a significant setback for these working to wean the US off fossil fuels, in keeping with impartial vitality specialists. Improvement of a utility-scale clear vitality venture requires money and time, and the prospect that it might be killed by voters — even after it’s vetted and permitted by authorities regulators — would inject a stage of danger that might scare away funding.

“As laborious as it’s to clarify and defend a venture like this, it’s so simple for individuals to come back and torpedo it, they usually don’t even have to inform the reality,” mentioned Mr. Abergel. “When you can put a cease to those long run tasks a 12 months earlier than they’re accomplished, it raises massive questions in regards to the vitality transition and the way we’re going to get it completed.”

Earlier than there was a expensive and acrimonious battle in Maine, there was a easy, idealistic mandate: Gov. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, a Republican, needed to cut back his state’s dependence on fossil fuels.

On a sunny Monday in August 2016, Mr. Baker appeared earlier than the statehouse in Boston and signed a regulation meant to ramp up the usage of renewable vitality in Massachusetts. Hydroelectricity, he mentioned, would “play a vital function within the Commonwealth’s new balanced and various vitality portfolio by providing clear, dependable and cost-effective base-load, 24/7/365.”

Mr. Baker’s give attention to the always-on nature of hydroelectricity was intentional. Whereas wind farms and photo voltaic panels can now produce substantial quantities of energy, they can’t generate electrical energy when the air continues to be or the solar isn’t shining. However Massachusetts occurs to be comparatively near one of many largest sources of fresh, constant vitality on the earth: Canadian hydropower.

Engineers have been tapping the Quebec area’s in depth community of rivers to provide renewable electrical energy for greater than a century. At present, Hydro Quebec’s 61 hydropower crops produce 95 p.c of all electrical energy within the province, and costs are decrease than wherever in the US.

Hydro Quebec has additionally been exporting energy to the US and different Canadian provinces for many years. 5 traces run from the corporate’s grid into New York, Vermont and Massachusetts, and one other main transmission venture is within the works to deliver hydropower into the New York grid.

“We have been blessed with a geology that’s wealthy with water,” mentioned Sophie Brochu, the corporate’s chief government, sitting in her workplace in downtown Montreal. “The electrical energy is aggressive and clear.”

So when Mr. Baker set a objective of drastically decreasing Massachusetts’ emissions, Hydro Quebec appeared like an apparent alternative.

And whereas Massachusetts was paying for the venture, prospects elsewhere, together with in Maine, stood to profit. Each states draw vitality from the ISO New England energy grid, a community of energy crops and transmission traces that serves the northeast United States. Decrease vitality costs from hydropower would scale back prices for residents from Connecticut to Vermont.

By final 12 months, work on the venture was properly underway. Hydro Quebec was clearing forest the place it might set up about 60 miles of transmission traces in Canada. Foliage had been cleared alongside a lot of the 145 mile-long transmission route by Maine. And in Lewiston, Maine, land had been ready for a $330 million facility that may plug the electrical energy from Canada into the American grid, and ship substantial tax revenues to the town.

Altogether, the venture delivered what its backers believed was an unassailable mixture of advantages. “That is an environmentally vital discount in carbon emissions, and it additionally gives an enormous quantity of infrastructure that can allow new renewable technology,” mentioned Thorn Dickinson, chief government of NECEC. “You’ve got the roles, you could have the property taxes, you could have decrease charges, all with no value to Maine.”

Many Mainers noticed it in a different way.

Sandi Howard was rafting by a picturesque gorge on the Kennebec River in Might 2018 when she first heard about plans to construct transmission traces close by. Whereas a lot of the world across the river is crisscrossed with logging roads and cleared of timber, it is usually a preferred vacation spot for rafters, snowmobilers and campers.

Ms. Howard quickly emerged as one of many venture’s main antagonists. Armed with a Fb group and a ardour for the land, Ms. Howard unfold the phrase about what she mentioned was a basically flawed venture.

“As I began studying extra, the considerations began to mushroom,” she mentioned. “There’s quite a lot of explanation why the venture is solely a nasty deal for Maine.”

Chief amongst Ms. Howard’s worries is the impact the brand new transmission poles may have on the native setting.

Whereas roughly 100 miles of the brand new wire can be strung alongside an current excessive transmission hall that can be widened, the venture will even require a lower by 53 miles of largely uninhabited forest close to the Canadian border. Metal poles can be erected close to streams the place brook trout spawn, and in places that might disrupt scenic vistas.

These considerations, together with questions on whether or not the venture would truly scale back greenhouse fuel emissions, persuaded distinguished environmental teams, together with native Sierra Membership and the Pure Assets Council of Maine, to oppose the venture. Critics of hydropower contend that the large-scale flooding required to create reservoirs results in emissions of methane, a potent planet warming fuel.

And so they say the general local weather advantages can be minimal as a result of Hydro Quebec wouldn’t be producing new clear vitality for the New England grid, simply decreasing the quantity of hydropower it sells to different markets. A greater resolution could be the set up of rooftop photo voltaic throughout New England, the Pure Assets Council of Maine mentioned, whereas different Maine residents level to what they are saying is a superior proposal to deliver Canadian hydropower into the U.S. by an underground line in Vermont.

Native American tribes in Maine and Canada additionally joined the opposition, protesting the truth that firms stood to “make billions of {dollars} in income with out consulting or compensating the First Nations on whose ancestral territories its electrical energy is produced and thru which it will likely be transported.”

In a letter to President Biden, the Chief of the Penobscot Nation in Maine, Kirk Francis, mentioned that, “the U.S. Military Corps of Engineers ignored its accountability — and our requests — to seek the advice of with us and gave the NECEC its stamp of approval with blinders on.”

One more level of competition was the truth that many residents harbor deep animosity towards Central Maine Energy and Avangrid. A historical past of poor customer support has made Central Maine Energy one of many least standard utilities within the nation, in keeping with a examine by J.D. Energy.

As if all that weren’t sufficient, there was the truth that Avangrid is owned by a Spanish firm, Iberdrola. That, together with Hydro Quebec’s involvement, led to claims that the venture amounted to a international takeover of America’s vitality infrastructure.

Earlier than lengthy, resistance had calcified, and most of the cities that originally voiced approval for the venture started preventing it.

“I needed to consider this venture was a web profit to the world with respect to local weather, in addition to a web profit to Maine,” mentioned Seth Berry, a consultant within the Maine legislature and local weather advocate. “However the extra I seemed into it, the extra I spotted it was neither.”

Although a various group opposed the plan, it wasn’t in any respect clear how they may cease a venture that was already underway and had the help of senior state and federal officers. However Ms. Howard and her allies quickly discovered well-funded companions that shared their agenda: three vitality corporations that function pure fuel and nuclear crops within the space and would possible take successful to their income if the NECEC venture have been to be accomplished.

The businesses — NextEra Power, Vistra Power and Calpine — have been quickly funding a marketing campaign to defeat the venture, spending a complete of $27 million on the hassle, in keeping with state filings.

Vistra and Calpine didn’t reply to requests for remark. NextEra mentioned it was against the NECEC for a wide range of causes, together with the truth that finishing it might require an costly improve at one in all its nuclear energy crops in New Hampshire.

By final 12 months, commercials for and towards the NECEC venture have been flooding the Maine media market, unleashing a dizzying collection of claims and counterclaims that blurred the traces between truth and fiction. Battles raged over whether or not the venture would lead to total greenhouse fuel emissions, how extreme the environmental results could be, and the way a lot Maine would profit. Opponents of the venture falsely claimed that hydroelectricity was dirtier than coal, whereas supporters tried to influence voters that passing a retroactive regulation may sooner or later jeopardize their gun rights.

The debates performed out on the town corridor conferences, TV adverts, unsolicited mail and social media. The Fox Information host Tucker Carlson, who has a house in Maine, produced a section bashing the venture. Power Secretary Jennifer Granholm on Twitter touted the venture’s potential to cut back carbon emissions and decrease vitality costs.

Hoping to win over skeptical Maine residents, Hydro Quebec and Avangrid modified the brand new transmission poles so they might additionally carry excessive pace web cables, and provided the state a reduced charge on some vitality.

It didn’t matter. On Election Day, Maine residents accepted a fastidiously worded poll measure that, if upheld by the state Supreme Courtroom, will successfully kill the NECEC.

“This was the voters saying they don’t need tasks like this in Maine,” mentioned Tom Saviello, a former member of the State Senate, who turned a number one voice of the opposition. “We have been giving up so much, and getting nothing out of this.”

However the place Maine residents see a grass-roots victory, executives for Hydro Quebec and Avangrid, in addition to Massachusetts officers, see a bunch of rival vitality corporations stymying the event of urgently wanted clear vitality infrastructure.

“The grid goes to must get constructed out considerably to succeed in our decarbonization objectives,” mentioned Kathleen Theoharides, the Massachusetts secretary of vitality and environmental affairs. “What makes me involved is the concept that a venture that was absolutely permitted by state entities may go to the poll, and get a retroactive resolution from the voters primarily based on a variety of misinformation from vitality corporations that stood to lose cash from this new line coming by.”

After a day spent touring the producing station in Radisson, Mr. Abergel boarded a small turboprop aircraft for a 3 hour flight south to Montreal and mirrored on venture that seems on the snapping point. From the air, he seemed out on tons of of sq. miles of uninhabited land, a lot of which had been flooded a long time in the past to create the huge reservoirs that energy Hydro Quebec’s subterranean generators.

“The venture would give individuals a secure supply of energy — to not point out it’s clear,” he mentioned. “Even when you don’t care in regards to the setting, it is sensible.”

But because the Maine Supreme Courtroom decides the destiny of the NECEC, it is not going to be evaluating the venture on its relative deserves, or contemplating the swirling claims and counterclaims. As a substitute, the courtroom will determine a slim set of questions that don’t have anything to do with local weather change, specializing in technicalities corresponding to whether or not a referendum can cease a venture that was already accepted by regulators.

“This mainly units the precedent that voters can block these actually vital infrastructure tasks,” mentioned Robin Millican, director of coverage at Breakthrough Power, a bunch that’s selling numerous efforts to cut back emissions however isn’t concerned within the venture. “That’s not good for local weather total.”

Many analysts, and even supporters of the venture, acknowledge that the courtroom may aspect with the opposition, dooming the NECEC and forcing Massachusetts again to the drafting board. That may be a state of affairs that may value Hydro Quebec and Avangrid a small fortune, and will have far-reaching implications, spelling bother for different efforts to quickly deploy extra clear vitality throughout the nation.

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