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NECEC getting closer to construction start but project foes keep battling

image credit: © Hydro-Québec

The battle over the proposed New England Clean Energy Connect transmission project continues, although the project’s opponents may be running out of time to stop it.

The latest rounds occurred earlier this month and were touched off when Avangrid, which wants to build the NECEC to bring Canadian hydropower into the New England grid for customers in Massachusetts, said the Army Corps of Engineers had approved the project. In Avangrid’s press release announcing the approval, Robert Kump, the company’s president, called it “… a significant milestone because it clears the way for construction to begin in the coming weeks.”

A week later, three conservation groups that oppose the NECEC fired back, saying they had filed a motion asking for a preliminary injunction that would prevent Avangrid from starting construction on the project until a federal court can consider their lawsuit challenging the Army Corps of Engineers’ environmental review of it.

Although it was proposed by Avangrid and Hydro-Québec, which would feed power into it, in response to a solicitation for clean power by the state of Massachusetts, the NECEC would be located entirely in Maine, which is one reason it’s controversial. Of the 145 miles of the project that would consist of a new high voltage direct current transmission line, 53 would require the construction of a new transmission corridor through forest being logged for timber in western Maine. In their press release announcing their request for a preliminary injunction, the Appalachian Mountain Club, Natural Resources Council of Maine and Sierra Club Maine said the new corridor would “forever [fragment] the largest contiguous temperate forest in North America and perhaps the world.”

In addition to fighting the NECEC in court, the project’s opponents are trying to fight it on the ballot. They gathered enough signatures to get a referendum on the NECEC put before voters in the election that just occurred but Avangrid responded with a successful lawsuit to keep it off the ballot. Now, they’re shooting for the election next November and they’ve gotten permission from the Maine Department of the Secretary of State to begin gathering signatures for their latest effort, according to a story by Fred Bever for Maine Public Radio.

In all, the NECEC would consist of 53 miles of HVDC line through a new transmission right-of-way and 94 miles of HDVC line in an existing right-of-way belonging to Avangrid’s Central Maine Power subsidiary; a new DC/AC converter substation in Lewiston, Maine; and a new 345 kilovolt substation in Pownal, Maine. (The distances are from a NECEC web page that, even though they add up to 147 miles, says the HVDC line would be 145 miles long.)

Although the NECEC’s primary purpose would be to feed hydro power into the New England grid for delivery to Massachusetts customers, Hydro-Québec reached an agreement with Maine Gov. Janet Mills in July to provide 500,000 megawatt hours of power per year from it to Mainers. The company also agreed to accelerate the dispensation of $170 million in benefits that it first agreed to provide in a 2019 stipulation approved by the Maine Public Utilities Commission. Those include relief on electricity rates and incentives for broadband communications, electric vehicle charging stations and heat pumps.

In addition to the permit that it recently received from the Army Corps of Engineers for the NECEC, Avangrid has gotten permits for the project from the Maine Public Utilities Commission, the Maine Land Use Planning Commission and the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. It said it still needs some municipal permits and a Presidential Permit from the Department of Energy to build the transmission segment of the project that crosses the US-Canadian border. Avangrid’s proposal to create a subsidiary called NECEC LLC to own and operate the project was approved by the Maine PUC last month, according to a story by Fred Bever for Maine Public Radio.

In addition to battling environmental groups, Avangrid and Hydro-Québec are fighting competitors, most notably NextEra Energy Resources, over the NECEC.

Last month, Avangrid filed a complaint with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission asking the agency to, among other things, order NextEra “to cease and desist all attempts to block, delay or unreasonably increase the costs associated with the interconnection of the NECEC” to the New England grid. In the complaint, Avangrid alleges that NextEra has refused to begin work at a nuclear power plant NextEra owns in New Hampshire that would allow NextEra to take advantage of an outage planned at the plant for next fall to build the facilities necessary to connect the NECEC to the grid “in a timely manner.”

Avangrid also says in the complaint that NextEra has worked “in efforts to kill the project politically in Maine, both openly and covertly.” The company says NextEra openly supported the effort to get a referendum on the NECEC on the ballot in the recently concluded election. On the covert front, Avangrid says: “There is strong circumstantial evidence linking NextEra to various organizations formed to oppose the NECEC … including Say No to NECEC, Stop the Corridor and No CMP Corridor.”

The Maine Ethics Commission voted in May to order Stop the Corridor to disclose its financial information to the commission so the commission could determine whether the organization should have been required to register as a political committee, according to a Bangor Daily News story by Jessica Piper. Stop the Corridor responded in June by filing a lawsuit arguing that the commission doesn’t have the jurisdiction to investigate its finances, according to a subsequent Piper story.

No CMP Corridor is behind the latest campaign to put a referendum on the NECEC before Maine voters and is getting assistance from Mainers for Local Power, whose funders include NextEra and two other power plant operators, Calpine and Vistra.

In September, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled against NextEra in a lawsuit it had filed against the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities claiming that the agency had improperly approved power purchase agreements between Massachusetts utilities and Hydro-Québec for the hydro power that would be transmitted by the NECEC, according to an article by Colin Young for State House News Service. (Hydro-Québec's Outardes 4 generation facility is pictured above this story.)

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