Backers of a state program to export renewable energy from Aroostook County with a new transmission line are optimistic they’ll earn more public support than Central Maine Power did with its the now-stalled Canadian hydro-powered corridor.
Under a bipartisan bill passed earlier this year, the Maine Public Utilities Commission put out a request for Northern Maine transmission and power generation proposals late last month.
The project aims to take advantage of Aroostook County’s large areas of relatively flat land, which offers one of the best onshore wind energy resources in the country and high solar power potential.
But Aroostook County faces an obstacle: It’s not connected directly to the New England and U.S. power grids. Instead, it imports electricity from New Brunswick, Canada, and must pay extra to export any power it produces and can’t use locally.
Jeremy Payne, director of the Maine Renewable Energy Association, said this has long made utility-scale wind and solar development un-economical in the sparsely developed region, which doesn’t have enough local demand to justify pricey projects without a way to export power.
“What it does is deprive them of significant economic investment and employment opportunity,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons why renewable energy development stalled up there.”
The new state program seeks to change that by soliciting plans for wind, solar and wood-fired energy as well as a transmission line to ferry that power onto the main New England system.
The Aroostook project comes at a contentious moment for the idea of building a large transmission line in Maine, just weeks after voters rebuked the CMP corridor. Work on that project is now on hold pending court review.
CMP also faces a federal racketeering lawsuit against its parent company, Avangrid, alleging it illegally inflated the profits it could recoup from Maine and other ratepayers. And the state is considering investigating CMP over issues with outages, billing and customer service.
The utility, or any other, could in theory propose a transmission line for the Northern Maine program, the PUC confirmed. But Payne said the state might be wise to make a different choice.
“It certainly would be helpful if the winning bid probably was not associated with three letters – CMP,” he said. “There’s just particular disdain for the company right now for a variety of different reasons.”
CMP spokeswoman Catharine Hartnett declined to comment on whether the utility would bid on the Northern Maine program, but said the utility “might suggest that it is worth examining the difference in funding between the (CMP corridor) and this new project in terms of who pays.”
Maine ratepayers will likely be on the hook for at least some of the Aroostook County program’s costs, unlike for the CMP corridor, which would be funded by a deal with Massachusetts to help meet that state’s climate change goals.
For its Northern Maine program, the PUC says it will “look favorably upon proposals (that use) some form of tariff treatment, cost recovery mechanism, cost-sharing with other states, or other means that would prevent the full cost … from being borne entirely by Maine ratepayers.”
In a statement, Sen. Jackson’s office said the law that prompted the PUC’s request for proposals (RFP) also includes safeguards for ratepayers that “ensure any proposal that would prove costly to Maine ratepayers would not move forward."
"President Jackson is hopeful that the RFP will come back with proposals that hold ratepayers harmless, meaning that ratepayers will be able to get electricity for the same if not cheaper rate than they are paying now,” the statement said. “He is also hopeful that renewable energy companies will identify creative ways to self-fund these projects given the vast economic benefits for their bottom-line should the transmission line be built.”
Payne noted that it’s not impossible for CMP to build power lines in Maine — it faced far less pushback about a decade ago with a project known as the Maine Power Reliability Program. But he said CMP took what felt like a better approach to gaining support for that proposal.
“They spent years having employees and consultants sit in on select board meetings, planning board meetings, getting to know the communities that they were potentially going to site their line through,” Payne said. “You can't be everything to everyone, but … there's ways to design projects and proposals to be most things to most people.”
Jack Shapiro directs the climate program at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, a leading CMP corridor opponent, and he said three things would help a Northern Maine line stand apart: more use of existing rights of way, better community engagement and “real” climate benefits.
NRCM has argued the existing hydropower dams behind the CMP line wouldn’t make a real impact on carbon emissions, and that the line would do more harm than good for Mainers. Shapiro said the group is much more optimistic and excited about the Northern Maine program.
“It’s possible to do transmission projects in a way that's beneficial and responsible,” he said. “We need them to meet our climate goals and to realize the benefits of the clean energy economy for Maine people.”
The PUC’s request for proposals, and the legislation that set it up, prioritize those climate benefits and land-use issues, along with other Maine costs and benefits — including local economic boosts and the inclusion of at least one biomass proposal for the timber industry.
Those economic aspects are in focus for Aroostook Partnership CEO Paul Towle. He said he’s optimistic that his region will welcome a new transmission line, as well as wind and solar farms.
“You're always going to get folks that don't want it close to them, the NIMBYs,” Towle said, using the acronym for “not in my backyard. “But for the most part, I think people up here are more open to investments of this magnitude (that bring) temporary and full-time jobs, or long-term jobs. … We’re more open to it than many areas of the state, I'll put it that way.”
Allagash Democrat and Senate President Troy Jackson spearheaded the bill behind this program. He remained largely neutral in the CMP corridor debate, but said a “less intrusive” Northern Maine line should be more popular partly because it will carry home-grown energy.
“Aroostook County, you know, we feel left behind a lot of the time. This is a chance to create some economic activity up here,” Jackson said. “I just don't see any pushback that you saw to the (CMP corridor) at all.”
He said he wants the program to develop the same amount of renewable energy as what the CMP corridor offered — 1,200 megawatts, roughly the capacity of a large nuclear reactor.
Northern Maine transmission plans are due to the PUC in March. Details of those bids will be given to generation project developers, whose bids are due in May. The PUC aims to pick winning projects by next November.
This story was updated to include a statement from Sen. Troy Jackson's office regarding the cost of the program.