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How a clean energy project sparked a $100m ‘hoohah’

There has been enough “hoohah” over a plan to bring clean hydropower from Canada to the state of Maine to spark a protracted legal struggle, which could spell difficulty for future green energy projects in the US.

The 1,200 megawatts of Canadian hydropower would be transported to Massachusetts over 145 miles (233 km) of transmission line as part of the New England Clean Energy Connect (NECEC), a project that was intended to set the standard for the sector and prevent over three million metric tonnes of carbon emissions annually.

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Final approvals were given to the $1 billion (£840 million) project, which was financed by the utility Hydro-Quebec and Central Maine Power (CMP), a subsidiary of the Spanish energy giant Avangrid. These approvals included a Presidential Permit from the US Department of Energy. In January 2021, work on the project started.

The hydroelectric project may now be doomed to failure after a majority of Mainers decided to scrap it in November.

The Maine Supreme Court is currently deliberating whether or not to rule on the constitutionality of the referendum and the lease for a mile-long piece of public land.

Hydro-Quebec could miss out on $10 billion in future revenue from this project if the court rules against the opponents and the corridor cannot be built as planned.

At a time when many states are working diligently to green their electricity infrastructure to counteract the consequences of climate change and rising fuel prices, it could potentially portend difficulty for the future of other clean energy projects in the US.

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Orlando Delogu, a professor emeritus at the University of Maine School of Law who favours the corridor and has served as an advisor in the dispute over the project, stated, “We can’t succeed if every wind project, every solar energy project, every hydro project…is going to be contested.”

But opposition to the initiative was present from the beginning. Former state senator Tom Saviello joined the opposition in 2018.

“That kind of bargain didn’t make it worthwhile. Maine wasn’t treated fairly, as I had hoped, “said he. “We’re sacrificing a lot for nothing,”

He was wary of a project that appeared to be primarily designed to benefit a Canadian utility and Maine’s southern neighbour, Massachusetts, which signed a 20-year contract with NECEC’s backers to receive the majority of the power. In Maine, where some people believe you are not considered a local unless you were born there.

The project does contain a strategy that would reduce monthly energy costs by $2.72 while supplying power to nearly 70,000 homes in Maine.

The estimated advantages and monthly savings have been challenged by those opposed, who claim they amount to cents.

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A 53-mile extension through Maine’s North Woods, including the brief section over public land that is being contested in court, is planned for the corridor, with around two-thirds of it to be built on top of already-existing transmission lines.

The project’s backers assert that it is the quickest and most environmentally friendly way to connect Massachusetts and Quebec, where the hydropower is produced. All relevant approvals were given, and subsequent independent evaluations of the project revealed that it would lower emissions in the area.

However, a number of environmental organisations have voiced concerns about the ecological impact on the North Woods and questioned if the electricity will indeed be as pure as claimed.

Mr. Saviello added that Hydro-partnership Quebec’s with CMP, which has had a series of public relations missteps in the state, including claims of overbilling and significant outages, didn’t help either.

Out of 88 utilities in the US, the company received the lowest customer satisfaction rating from market research firm JD Power.

They have a bad reputation, according to Mr. Saviello. “Would you want someone like them in charge of such a significant project?”

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The largest transmission project in Maine was finished in 2015 on time and under budget, according to a statement from CMP, which also claimed to have a track record of success on big energy projects. This, it added, has improved customer service.

Catharine Hartnett, manager of corporate communications, said “We continue to hold ourselves accountable to these standards.”

Despite legal opposition, the corridor’s construction started. In the meantime, opponents were launching a parliamentary assault with a statewide referendum on the project’s approval.

It all came to a climax last winter when over 400,000 Mainers turned out to vote, a significant accomplishment in a state with only 1.3 million residents. Only the 2012 referendum on gay marriage had a higher voter turnout for a referendum in the history of the state.

Both sides of the argument actively lobbied to advance their positions. By the time the question was placed on the ballot, it was the most expensive in the history of the state.

The Maine Ethics Commission, which keeps track of political spending, estimates that the referendum fight cost over $100 million in all. The majority of the $82 million raised for the project by supporters came from Avangrid, Hydro-Quebec, and CMP.

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Companies that produce fossil fuels were some of the largest supporters of the opposition. The majority of the $20 million donated by the energy company NextEra was used for television advertising. While the business offers green energy in other places, it mostly provides oil and gas in Maine. An inquiry for feedback from NextEra received no response.

Overall, the project’s detractors spent twice as much on television advertising as its proponents.

According to law scholar Mr. Delogu, that made the corridor campaign impossible to win.

In a small state, “it causes a lot of hoopla,” he remarked.

He attributes the project’s poll-defeating performance on lobbying by rivals in the fossil fuel industry.

“Global warming is having a negative impact on every region of the planet, and it’s becoming worse at an accelerating rate in many places because we can’t fight back against the interests of the fossil fuel industry,” he said.

Construction was already costing roughly $450 million when it came to a standstill.

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To achieve President Joe Biden’s objective of having 100 percent renewable electricity by 2035, the US Department of Energy estimates that the country’s electricity transmission systems must be expanded nationwide by 60 percent.

According to the Department of Energy-funded and University of California-run Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, there are enough proposed renewable energy projects vying for access to the transmission grid to meet the majority of the nation’s energy needs, assuming they can connect.

According to Joe Rand, senior scientific engineering associate at the lab, the grid needs more capacity because there are so many projects waiting to be completed. Backlogs could be decreased by enhancing and streamlining the approval procedure for certain projects.

Despite demand, fewer new transmission lines have been constructed than in the past.

There appears to be a fundamental disconnect, according to Mr. Rand. We should be building more transmission, yet we’re doing the opposite.

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According to him, regulatory red tape and public opposition to these initiatives are frequent obstacles that add to the protracted development times required to execute a project. From start to finish, it may take 15 years.

Avangrid and Hydro-Quebec attempted and failed to obtain permits to start a comparable project in the neighbouring state of New Hampshire before beginning work on the project in Maine.

Mr. Saviello has proposed that Massachusetts link through Vermont, which has permission to construct an underground transmission route, along with many other Maine opponents of the NECEC proposal.

He asserted that Mainers’ opposition to this project does not necessarily indicate that they are against clean energy.

Despite the fact that the Maine corridor has expenses, both financial and environmental, Mr. Delogu claimed that the advantages exceed the drawbacks.

He remarked, “I think we ought to accept it or we’ll keep getting engulfed in global warming.

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