NECEC and the problem of community input
- May 9, 2022 10:36 pm GMT
Scrolling through my newsfeed this morning, I came across this big write-up in the New York Times about the fate of the New England Clean Energy Connect (NECEC).
For those who don’t know, NECEC is a transmission project that would transport hydropower from Quebec to the Massachusetts grid. The NECEC would have a big impact on Massachusetts’ energy portfolio. The transmission project promised to transport 9.45 million MWh of electricity from Hydro-Quebec to Massachusetts every year. That would account for around 8% of the electricity used in all of New England, powering close to 1.2 million homes.
However, as the Times article details, the project has been brought to a standstill and risks never being completed. Opponents, a mix concerned residents, environmental groups, Native American tribes, and rival utilities, successfully got Maine voters to pass a measure that halted the project last November. On May 10th, the referendum’s legality will be decided on by the state’s supreme court.
A couple clips from the Times article really underscore the uniquely difficult barriers facing such projects under the American system:
“As hard as it is to explain and defend a project like this, it is so easy for people to come and torpedo it, and they don’t even have to tell the truth,” said Mr. Abergel. “If you can put a stop to these long term projects a year before they’re completed, it raises big questions about the energy transition and how we’re going to get it done.”
“Engineers have been tapping the Quebec region’s extensive network of rivers to produce renewable electricity for more than a century. Today, Hydro Quebec’s 61 hydropower plants produce 95 percent of all electricity in the province, and prices are lower than anywhere in the United States.”
“Though a diverse group opposed the plan, it wasn’t at all clear how they might stop a project that was already underway and had the support of senior state and federal officials. But Ms. Howard and her allies soon found well-funded partners that shared their agenda: three energy companies that operate natural gas and nuclear plants in the area and would likely take a hit to their profits if the NECEC project were to be completed.”
“The companies — NextEra Energy, Vistra Energy and Calpine — were soon funding a campaign to defeat the project, spending a total of $27 million on the effort, according to state filings.”
“But where Maine residents see a grass-roots victory, executives for Hydro Quebec and Avangrid, as well as Massachusetts officials, see a group of rival energy companies stymying the development of urgently needed clean energy infrastructure.”
Unfortunately, current regulations that empower community voices make it too easy to shoot down net-positive power projects. Utility decision makers, beholden to the approval of their shareholders, often feel they have no choice but to leverage the system to stamp out competition.
How can power companies get much-needed projects off the ground when the current system de-incentivizes them?
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