When Maine voters went to the polls last November, their ballots asked them to decide whether the state should prohibit construction on the Central Maine Power Company’s $1 billion transmission line from Canada. Nearly 60% said yes, retroactively blocking a project that state regulators had already approved.
On Tuesday, Maine’s high court ruled that the referendum may have violated the utility company’s right to build, throwing the New England Clean Energy Connect a lifeline that could reverse the fate of a controversial project ― one that experts nevertheless say is vital to weaning the United States’ gas-dependent Northeast off fossil fuels.
The ballot initiative’s language retroactively targeting the line “would infringe” on the project’s “constitutionally-protected vested rights” if the company “can demonstrate by a preponderance of the evidence that it engaged in substantial construction of the project in good-faith reliance on the authority granted by the permit before Maine voters approved the initiated bill by public referendum,” the Maine Supreme Judicial Court wrote in its ruling.
CMP will need to prove its case before a lower court. It’s unclear when those proceedings may begin. But a victory there would likely lead to construction resuming on the partially built line, assuming it comes before the end of 2023 ― after which Massachusetts, which is paying for the power line, says it will seek alternatives.
Avangrid, the U.S. subsidiary of the Spanish utility giant Iberdrola and the owner of Central Maine Power, called the court’s decision “a victory for clean energy expansion, transmission development, and decarbonization efforts in Maine, New England and across the country.”
“It is time to move away from the status quo fossil fuel companies who will undoubtedly continue their fight to maintain a stranglehold on the New England energy market,” Avangrid said in a statement.
Colin Durrant, a spokesperson for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, one of the project’s primary opponents, called Tuesday’s court ruling “difficult to interpret,” and said it is not clear when the lower court would take up its review or how long it might take.
Hydro-Québec, the government-owned utility in Canada’s French-speaking province that would sell power on the line, said it was reviewing the ruling.
“It is a favorable decision,” said Lynn St-Laurent, a Hydro-Québec spokesperson, referring to the decision’s closing arguments as “quite encouraging language.”
It is the latest twist in a drawn-out regional saga that mirrors the greater U.S. struggle to transition its power grid off fossil fuels.
The project dates back to 2016, when Massachusetts enacted a new climate law and required its power sellers to dramatically increase their supply of low-carbon energy. Working with local utilities, Hydro-Québec put forward a winning bid to sell more of its hydroelectric bounty to Bay Staters.
The proposed corridor would connect New England’s power grid, which is heavily dependent on fossil fuels, to the system in Québec, where massive hydroelectric dams provide 24/7 low-carbon power. As states like Maine and Massachusetts rely more on solar and wind, their grid operators need more “dispatchable” backup generators for when the sky is dark and the air is still. Until batteries or clean hydrogen fuel become cheaper and more widely available, the best options to keep the lights on are either building more local gas-fired power plants or connecting to a grid that’s bigger, sturdier and, ideally, cleaner.
That’s what Québec has. Look at the website Electricity Maps, which uses real-time, color-coded grid data to show the carbon intensity of various regional electrical systems. The Canadian province, with a 100% renewable grid, is consistently dark green. That the brown hue of New England, with just 35% low-carbon power, has a yellowish tint at all may be because, on Tuesday afternoon, Québec was exporting about 2 gigawatts of electricity over the border via existing lines.
But the new project would require clearing a new 53-mile corridor through Maine’s North Woods, as well as widening another 90-mile section of existing power lines. If the voters’ general disdain for their utility company wasn’t enough to swing the election, there is also the fact that, though the states’ grid is connected, the primary users of this Canadian electricity would be residents of Massachusetts, from which Maine split in 1820.
There are also concerns about bisecting one of the nation’s few remaining contiguous temperate forests, as well as concern about Québec’s dark history of stealing land from First Nation communities for hydroelectric projects that devastated local ecosystems. And while environmental groups like the Natural Resource Council of Maine and Appalachian Mountain Club made those arguments in earnest, fossil fuel companies ― notably out-of-state owners of gas-fired power plants ― spent millions working to drum up opposition to the project.
The project’s crushing defeat in last year’s referendum highlights how high the hurdles are for long-term energy projects, even in a state where two-thirds of adults expect climate change to inflict harm in the next 10 years.
U.S. property laws and the patchwork of jurisdictions offer not-in-my-backyard opponents ample opportunities to bog down an infrastructure project in legal proceedings. While natural gas pipelines enjoy special federal rights that make them easier to build, major transmission lines have proven nearly impossible to complete.
Journalist Russell Gold’s 2019 book “Superpower: One Man’s Quest to Transform American Energy” offers one poignant account of how local opponents and fossil fuel allies in Congress tanked a well-financed effort to construct a transmission line connecting wind turbines in gusty Oklahoma to cities in the Southeast.
One needn’t look far for more examples. Hydro-Québec offered Massachusetts buyers three potential routes for a transmission line, and Maine was the second choice. The first one picked in 2017 was via New Hampshire, where the company and its Boston-based partner Eversource Energy proposed building the Northern Pass line. In 2018, however, New Hampshire’s utility commissioners voted unanimously to block the project, which they said would damage tourism and mostly benefit Massachusetts.
Similar regional rivalries nearly tanked a proposal to convey hydroelectricity from Québec to New York City, which became roughly 90% dependent on fossil fuels after shuttering its lone nuclear power plant last year. When that transmission project ― which was first proposed 13 years ago ― came before state regulators in April, officials from the state’s northern reaches expressed concern that upstaters would not reap any benefits. But enough skeptics were persuaded that New York City’s landmark climate law would provide sufficient financing to avoid any serious rate hikes upstate. The project passed in a 5-2 vote.
The New York announcement was part of an unusual string of wins for proponents of building transmission lines.
Just two weeks after the Maine vote last November, President Joe Biden signed his bipartisan infrastructure deal into law, earmarking between $5 billion and $10 billion for transmission lines.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, meanwhile, began work on a rule to require more regional transmission planning and make it easier to build lines.
In June, the ailing Midcontinent Independent System Operator, the regional grid system that covers 15 states up the Mississippi River from Louisiana to Michigan, announced a $10 billion plan to build 18 new transmission lines. The MISO includes representatives from its member states’ governments, which means the proposals are more likely to get permitted, according to Rob Gramlich, a power grid expert and president of the consultancy Grid Strategies LLC.
But Biden’s latest legislative win, the Inflation Reduction Act, scrapped a federal tax credit that would have helped finance construction of new power lines with the same type of write-off that developers of solar farms and wind parks claim. And even the funding in the bipartisan law falls far short of what’s needed to transform an electrical industry that makes roughly $150 billion in investments each year, Gramlich said.
“There’s a lot of talk in Washington about transmission, and I certainly appreciate all that attention,” Gramlich said. “But, to be honest, looking at the scorecard of whether we’ve really moved the needle on transmission in this country? It hasn’t happened. We don’t have the policies yet.”