A proposed 145-mile (233-kilometer) transmission line that would serve as a conduit for Canadian hydropower to reach the New England power grid cleared a major hurdle Thursday with approval of the Maine Public Utilities Commission.
The three-member panel unanimously approved Central Maine Power's $1 billion project, but further regulatory approvals will be necessary for the project to become a reality.
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CMP's New England Clean Energy Connect would allow 1,200 megawatts of Canadian hydropower to reach consumers in Massachusetts to meet that state's green energy goals. Commissioners concluded that there are substantial benefits for Maine, as well, including reduced carbon pollution, lower electric rates and enhanced energy reliability, along with $258 million in incentives.
Commission Chairman Mark Vannoy said Thursday that the economic and environmental gains are needed in a region trying to balance the need for more energy with environmental stewardship.
"We're at a critical point here: It's needed, it's necessary, and the state of Maine is moving forward," he said, calling the outcome "a good result for Maine ratepayers."
But a staff attorney for the Natural Resources Council of Maine called the decision "deeply flawed" and accused regulators of siding with "Central Maine Power's corporate interests over the best interests of the state of Maine and ratepayers of Maine."
"This decision dramatically overstates the benefits while dramatically undervaluing the negative impacts to the state of Maine," Sue Ely said.
Though the project is being funded by Massachusetts, critics say it would destroy Maine's unspoiled wilderness without guarantees of environmental benefits. They also say it would snuff out homegrown green energy projects, like solar and wind power, in Maine.
Much of the project calls for widening existing corridors, but a new swath would be cut through 53 miles (85 kilometers) of wilderness in western Maine. It would cross the Appalachian Trail, 263 wetlands and 115 streams, according to the Natural Resources Council of Maine.
Further approvals are necessary. The Maine Department of Environmental Protection, the Maine Land Use Planning Commission and other regulators all have to approve some aspect of the CMP project. The Department of Environmental Protection will make the final decision on CMP's site permit and compliance with the state Natural Resources Protection Act, agency spokesman David Madore said.
Maine Public Advocate Barry Hobbins and Democratic Gov. Janet Mills both endorsed the project after CMP sweetened the deal with a package of benefits for Maine.
The utility's $258 million in incentives would provide $140 million for rate relief for retail customers, $50 million for low-income energy customers, $15 million to subsidize heat pump purchases and $15 million for electric cars and charging stations.
Supporters say the project would provide electricity for a million homes and drive down electricity rates for all of New England. An independent consultant, London Economics International LLC, concluded carbon dioxide emissions would be lowered by 3.6 million metric tons per year.
A subsidiary of CMP, which is part of Connecticut-based Avangrid, would be created to oversee construction of the power line to ensure Maine ratepayers are insulated from costs.
The utility hopes to receive all regulatory approvals by year's end and for construction to begin next year, said Thorn Dickinson, vice president for business development.