Central Maine Power Co.’s $950 million New England Clean Energy Connect transmission project is reaching the endgame, with opponents and proponents squaring off in an all-day hearing Thursday hosted by the Maine Public Utilities Commission.
Next step in the project’s PUC process — which included three public hearings and 1,245 written comments filed with the commission over the past 17 months — is an examiner’s report written by PUC staff that initially was due on March 18, but was amended on March 13 to the new date of April 1.
CMP’s project spokesman John H. Carroll said such reports typically convey “a recommendation” to the three-member commission and are usually a good indicator of what the final decision might be.
Under the new amended schedule, all parties would have until April 8 to file exceptions to the recommended order. Speaking prior to the March 13 change in the schedule, Carroll said that typically after exceptions are filed, the PUC would hold its deliberations and vote on an order to approve the project, or not, within a couple of weeks.
Writing on behalf of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, Susan Ely submitted a letter to the PUC today asking that the deadline for parties to submit exceptions and comments on the examiner's report be extended from April 8 to April 12.
Ely noted that both the Department of Environmental Protection and the Land Use Planning Commission had scheduled hearings on CMP's project from April 1 through April 5. "Given the convergence of these two deadlines, it will be difficult for NRCM to respond to the Examiner’s Report without an extension of time," she wrote.
The PUC's March 7 hearing was limited to testimony by authorized intervenors in CMP’s proposed 145-mile transmission project to deliver 1,200 megawatts of renewable energy generated by Hydro-Quebec to Massachusetts. The focal point of debate was CMP’s Feb. 21 stipulation outlining almost $1 billion of state and community benefits that the utility and other signatories of the 50-page proposal say the project would provide if it’s approved by the state and other regulatory bodies.
Carroll, in an interview with Mainebiz last week, said the Feb. 21 stipulation is a significant milestone in the NECEC’s 17-month regulatory approval process.
“When you have a case of this scale and magnitude, settling it by a stipulation is not all that unusual,” he said. “The commission typically gives a lot of deference to a good, stipulated settlement that’s transparent, consistent with Maine laws and has credible parties signing off on that.”
Parties signing off on CMP’s Feb. 21 stipulation, Carroll said, include the Governor’s Energy Office; Office of the Public Advocate; Conservation Law Foundation; Acadia Center; Industrial Energy Consumers Group; Maine State Chamber of Commerce; Western Mountains and Rivers; International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers; and the city of Lewiston.
Gov. Janet Mills voiced her support for the agreement in her March 1 weekly radio address, outlining in lawyerly fashion how the stipulation “substantially enhanced” the transmission line project and persuaded her “that this is a project, on balance, that is worth pursuing.”
“By all objective analyses, it will suppress the price of electricity in Maine and across the region, saving Maine residents alone millions of dollars each year in electricity costs,” she said in her radio address. “In addition, there is that $50 million Low Income Customer Benefits Fund that will be administered by the Office of Public Advocate and a $140 million fund to further reduce electricity rates for Maine consumers … In the first 10 years, the project will provide nearly $1 billion in economic benefits to the state, including several thousand jobs in western Maine during the peak of construction — jobs sorely need in rural areas of our state.”
Mills added that if the project is approved and goes forward, it would put Maine and New England “on the road to a zero-carbon economy by 2050. This isn’t CMP saying this; it’s the experts. And, it’s me.”
ReEnergy Biomass Operations LLC, in a March 1 written statement opposing CMP’s stipulation agreement, argued that it failed to meet three of the four criteria PUC said would be considered in its decision. Noting that 10 parties signed the stipulation, 13 opposed it and eight did not sign the agreement, ReEnergy’s Chief Risk Officer William H. Ralston concluded it “clearly does not meet the threshold of representing a sufficiently broad spectrum of interests.”
“Not one independent power generator has signed on to the stipulation,” Ralston wrote, identifying NextEra Energy Resources LLC, Calpine Corp., Vistra Energy Corp., Bucksport Generation LLC, RENEW Northeast Inc. and Maine Renewable Energy Association as among the parties joining its opposition to CMP’s proposal. “In this light, the lack of any generators supporting this stipulation is particularly glaring and should be a red flag that disenfranchisement has occurred in the crafting of the stipulation.”
Susan Ely, attorney for Natural Resources Council of Maine, in her March 1 written comments, characterized CMP’s stipulation as “just a weak attempt to mitigate a flawed project thinly disguised as something that will benefit Maine.”
Ely acknowledged that the stipulation’s $140 million NECEC rate relief fund and the $50 million rate-relief fund for low-income customers “sound impressive,” but when spread out over 40 years, she concluded “the end results will not be perceptible to any Maine ratepayers.”
Caratunk, in its March 1 written statement, urged the PUC to deny CMP’s request for a certificate of public need. “The public outcry is not limited to Somerset and Franklin counties,” the town’s Board of Selectmen wrote. “Maine citizens from all counties are declaring disdain for a project which will ravish Maine’s iconic woods, fisheries, wildlife, tourism and brand. The overwhelming sentiment is that Maine does not need this power line or the dirty power it supplies.”
A 23-page joint written statement, Public Advocate Barry J. Hobbins and Preti Flaherty lawyers Andrew Landry and Anthony Buxton, representing the Industrial Energy Consumer Group, discounted the opponent’s objections, stating:
The “generator intervenors” (e.g., Calpine, Vistra Corp., Bucksport Generation and NextEra Energy) “represent interests that would benefit from the cancellation of the NECEC project, regardless of whether the project provides substantial benefits to Maine citizens and energy consumers. Their decision not to participate in the stipulation is therefore not surprising.”
Two towns opposing the stipulation, Caratunk (population 69) and Alna (population 709), should be weighed against “at least 21 cities and towns and three county governments” supporting the project, including Lewiston (population 36,592).
By comparison, they wrote, the parties that signed CMP’s stipulation represent an “extremely broad spectrum on interests” ranging from consumers (i.e., Office of Public Advocate) to the environment (i.e. Conservation Law Foundation, Acadia Center and Western Mountains and Rivers) to businesses (i.e. Industrial Energy Consumer Group and Maine State Chamber of Commerce).
The written statement of Hobbins, Landry and Buxton offers a detailed summary of behind-the-scenes efforts by both former Gov. Paul LePage and Gov. Janet Mills to negotiate with CMP and Hydro-Quebec a “broad and inclusive settlement” with a public benefits package that would be more generous than CMP’s initial offering.
Those negotiations included pro bono work by former PUC Chairman Thomas Welch, advising Mills, that eventually led to an agreement the public advocate and the IECG assert would:
Reduce energy costs for Maine retail customers by up to $384 million in the first 15 years of the agreement
Contribute “substantially to the region’s efforts to meet its greenhouse gas reduction goals”
Enhance the “fuel diversity and fuel security of the New England region by reducing dependence on natural gas, particularly during peak periods.”
“The foregoing benefits are provided to Maine at no cost and do not present any new risk to the reliability of the service that CMP customers presently receive,” they wrote, adding that the agreement wouldn’t stifle development of additional renewable energy projects within Maine.
Serge Abergel, manager of public affairs and media for Hydro-Quebec, told Mainebiz in an interview last week the hydropower company’s 63 hydropower-generating stations and 28 reservoirs have more than enough capacity to sell 1,200 megawatts of electricity annually to Massachusetts.
“This has been the basis of Quebec’s economic development for more than 75 years,” Abergel said, adding that those generating stations, along with new ones under construction, are capable of greatly reducing New England’s dependence on natural gas (which generates 49% of the region’s electricity).
“It’s a long-term commitment,” he said of Hydro-Quebec’s interest in CMP’s NECEC project. “These hydropower generating stations are going to be functioning for 100 years or more. If you maintain them, they will last forever … With hydropower you have an energy resource that is dependable and stable in its price."
“This is the most important clean energy project in New England,” added Lynn St.-Laurent, strategic communications advisor/public affairs and media relations for Hydro-Quebec. “We’re a neighbor to the north with massive amounts of clean renewable energy. We can seriously make a difference, not only for the 20-year [NECEC] contract period but for much longer.”
Editor's note: The original version of this story has been updated to include new information about the PUC's amended schedule for the examiner's report and deadline for exceptions and comments on that report.