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Transmission line politics will have to learn from the failures of housing politics

Christopher Neely's picture
Independent Local News Organization

Journalist for nearly a decade with keen interest in local energy policies for cities and national efforts to facilitate a renewable revolution. 

  • Member since 2017
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  • Jun 30, 2022
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I was just reading a CNBC story about the battle fomenting in Maine over the New England Clean Energy Connect and a 53-mile stretch of high voltage transmission lines that would connect Massachusetts to a honey hive of clean, Canadian hydropower, enough energy to power 1.2 million homes. 

The project, necessary enough, is stalled for now after Maine voters rejected the construction of the stretch of transmission infrastructure through a referendum. The argument against the project, according to a leader of the opposing coalition, is steeped in environmental protection. They don't want the line to disrupt the natural ecosystem, especially special trout that uses nearby waterways. From the article, quoting Sandi Howard leader of the Say No to NECEC group: 

“Mainers want to protect its environment and way of life,” Howard told CNBC. If the power line were to be constructed, “there would be a dramatic impact to Maine’s natural resources, scenic character, economic impact to Maine’s four-season recreational tourism industry,” she said.

Reading this argument delivers me back into the fight over housing supply happening in major cities across the country. The mandate from experts is clear: more housing is necessary in order to mitigate the steep increases in demand and price. Not to get into housing technicalities, but more supply often means greater density, through either apartment complexes or multi-family units. Yet, the effort to build more housing is thwarted often by homeowners who argue, among other things, that density disturbs and more development will further harm the environment. 

This is a simplistic way of looking at the issue. Taking out a few trees and maybe shrinking a few lawns to build a new apartment complex may disrupt urban green space, but it creates more housing in an already developed environment without having to sprawl these projects onto undeveloped tracts of green space. Denser development actually helps the environment by containing the human footprint to a concentrated area. 

Housing advocates have had difficulty winning this argument and the result has been this crazy housing market we find ourselves in. Renewable energy and climate advocates need to learn from this battle on the housing front and apply new methods to the battle over transmission lines. Yes, new transmission infrastructure could disrupt the local ecosystem; however, not advancing the state's, region's, and country's clean energy goals will harm the local ecosystem even more in the long run by not curbing carbon emissions—it just won't be as immediately dramatic and obvious. 

The battle seen in Maine will be seen in jurisdictions across the country. The industry needs to be ready for this. Just as in the housing battle, shoving development and infrastructure down people's throats is never going to win hearts. Bringing all parties to the table will be important, as will a steadfast belief in, and effort to educate regarding, the long-term environmental benefits of transmission infrastructure. The world doesn't have time for each project to be battled in court. the work to educate residents starts now, before there is even a project on the table.  

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