January 29, 2023
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Canadian Hydropower Destined for U.S. Hits a Roadblock in Maine


RADISSON, CANADA — Lots of 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 this planet, a large facility that converts the water of the La Grande River right into a present of renewable electrical energy sturdy sufficient to energy a midsize metropolis.

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

But immediately, work on the $1 billion undertaking is at a standstill.

Over the previous few years, an unlikely coalition of residents, conservationists and Native Individuals waged a rowdy marketing campaign funded by rival power firms to quash the hassle. The opponents gained a significant victory in November, when Maine voters handed a measure that halted the undertaking. Following a authorized combat, 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 multiple transmission line. The fiercely contested undertaking is emblematic of fights happening across the nation, as plans to construct clear power infrastructure run into opposition from residents proof against new improvement, preservationists and different firms with their very own financial pursuits at stake.

“On the finish of the day, everybody would possibly need extra transmission for renewable power,” stated Timothy Fox, vice chairman at ClearView Power Companions, an impartial analysis agency. “However nobody desires it of their yard.”

The undertaking in Maine, often known as New England Clear Power Join, or NECEC, is the form of large-scale, clean-energy infrastructure that will likely be required if america is to shift away from fossil fuels — a transition scientists say is urgently wanted so as to stop additional catastrophic local weather change. In response to 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, the whole lot in Maine was going in accordance with plan.

State and federal regulators carefully studied the plans and authorised it at each stage. Governors in Massachusetts and Maine have been on board.

And Hydro Quebec and Avangrid, its accomplice on the undertaking that can function the transmission traces and tools within the U.S., spent a whole bunch 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 enable power produced in northern Canada to maintain the lights on in Boston.

However there was resistance to the undertaking nearly from the beginning. Maine residents, annoyed by years of poor service by Central Maine Energy, a neighborhood utility owned by Avangrid, discovered frequent trigger with environmental organizations skeptical of hydropower.

These native teams discovered deep-pocketed supporters in three power firms 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 obtained a referendum query concerning the undertaking on final November’s poll, each side threw cash on the subject, spending greater than $100 million — a report for a Maine initiative — on a slugfest that tied the transmission undertaking to scorching 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 undertaking. On Election Day, 59 % of Maine voters authorised a measure that introduced work on the NECEC to a screeching halt, no less than in the meanwhile.

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

But when the NECEC is scrapped, it’s going to signify a significant setback for these working to wean america off fossil fuels, in accordance with impartial power consultants. Growth of a utility-scale clear power undertaking requires money and time, and the prospect that it could possibly be killed by voters — even after it’s vetted and permitted by authorities regulators — would inject a degree of threat that would scare away funding.

“As exhausting as it’s to clarify and defend a undertaking like this, it’s so simple for individuals to come back and torpedo it, and so they don’t even have to inform the reality,” stated Mr. Abergel. “In the event you can put a cease to those long run tasks a yr earlier than they’re accomplished, it raises massive questions concerning the power 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, wished 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 supposed to ramp up using renewable power in Massachusetts. Hydroelectricity, he stated, would “play a vital function within the Commonwealth’s new balanced and numerous power portfolio by providing clear, dependable and cost-effective base-load, 24/7/365.”

Mr. Baker’s deal with 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 remains to be or the solar just isn’t shining. However Massachusetts occurs to be comparatively near one of many largest sources of unpolluted, constant power on this planet: Canadian hydropower.

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

Hydro Quebec has additionally been exporting energy to america 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 undertaking is within the works to carry hydropower into the New York grid.

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

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

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

By final yr, work on the undertaking was effectively underway. Hydro Quebec was clearing forest the place it could set up about 60 miles of transmission traces in Canada. Foliage had been cleared alongside many of the 145 mile-long transmission route by way of 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 town.

Altogether, the undertaking 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 era,” stated Thorn Dickinson, chief govt of NECEC. “You may have the roles, you will have the property taxes, you will have decrease charges, all with no price to Maine.”

Many Mainers noticed it in another way.

Sandi Howard was rafting by way of 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 bushes, it is usually a well-liked vacation spot for rafters, snowmobilers and campers.

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

“As I began studying extra, the considerations began to mushroom,” she stated. “There’s various the reason why the undertaking is just a foul deal for Maine.”

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

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

These considerations, together with questions on whether or not the undertaking would really cut back greenhouse fuel emissions, persuaded outstanding environmental teams, together with native Sierra Membership and the Pure Assets Council of Maine, to oppose the undertaking. 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 will likely be minimal as a result of Hydro Quebec wouldn’t be producing new clear power for the New England grid, simply lowering the quantity of hydropower it sells to different markets. A greater resolution can be the set up of rooftop photo voltaic throughout New England, the Pure Assets Council of Maine stated, whereas different Maine residents level to what they are saying is a superior proposal to carry Canadian hydropower into the U.S. by way of an underground line in Vermont.

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

In a letter to President Biden, the Chief of the Penobscot Nation in Maine, Kirk Francis, stated that, “the U.S. Military Corps of Engineers ignored its duty — 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 widespread utilities within the nation, in accordance 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 undertaking amounted to a overseas takeover of America’s power infrastructure.

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

“I wished to consider this undertaking was a internet profit to the world with respect to local weather, in addition to a internet profit to Maine,” stated Seth Berry, a consultant within the Maine legislature and local weather advocate. “However the extra I appeared 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 undertaking that was already underway and had the assist of senior state and federal officers. However Ms. Howard and her allies quickly discovered well-funded companions that shared their agenda: three power firms that function pure fuel and nuclear crops within the space and would seemingly take successful to their earnings if the NECEC undertaking have been to be accomplished.

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

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

By final yr, commercials for and towards the NECEC undertaking have been flooding the Maine media market, unleashing a dizzying sequence of claims and counterclaims that blurred the traces between reality and fiction. Battles raged over whether or not the undertaking would end in general greenhouse fuel emissions, how extreme the environmental results can be, and the way a lot Maine would profit.

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 phase bashing the undertaking. Power Secretary Jennifer Granholm on Twitter touted the undertaking’s potential to cut back carbon emissions and decrease power costs.

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

It didn’t matter. On Election Day, Maine residents authorised a rigorously 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,” stated Tom Saviello, a former member of the State Senate, who turned a number one voice of the opposition. “We have been giving up lots, 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 power firms stymying the event of urgently wanted clear power infrastructure.

“The grid goes to should get constructed out considerably to achieve our decarbonization targets,” stated Kathleen Theoharides, the Massachusetts secretary of power and environmental affairs. “What makes me involved is the concept that a undertaking that was absolutely permitted by state entities may go to the poll, and get a retroactive resolution from the voters primarily based on plenty of misinformation from power firms that stood to lose cash from this new line coming by way of.”

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 undertaking that seems on the snapping point. From the air, he appeared out on a whole bunch of sq. miles of uninhabited land, a lot of which had been flooded a long time in the past to create the large reservoirs that energy Hydro Quebec’s subterranean generators.

“The undertaking would give individuals a steady supply of energy — to not point out it’s clear,” he stated. “Even for those who don’t care concerning the setting, it is sensible.”

But because the Maine Supreme Courtroom decides the destiny of the NECEC, it won’t be evaluating the undertaking on its relative deserves, or contemplating the swirling claims and counterclaims. As an alternative, the court docket will determine a slim set of questions that don’t have anything to do with local weather change, specializing in technicalities resembling whether or not a referendum can cease a undertaking that was already authorised by regulators.

Many analysts, and even supporters of the undertaking, acknowledge that the court docket may aspect with the opposition, dooming the NECEC and forcing Massachusetts again to the drafting board. It’s a state of affairs that may price Hydro Quebec and Avangrid a small fortune. And it may spell bother for different efforts to quickly deploy extra clear power throughout the nation.

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

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