In July 2017, Central Maine Power put in a bid for a project meant to supply New England with a big slug of clean, renewable energy.
Massachusetts was leading the region into a war against the ravages of climate change. It saw a new transmission line that could import excess hydroelectric power from Canada through northern New England as one weapon in the arsenal. And after New Hampshire rejected a transmission line proposal through its state in 2018, CMP’s project was selected.
Four years later, the $1 billion New England Clean Energy Connect project is under construction. Land is being cleared and poles erected. But rather than being widely embraced as a green-power solution for New England, NECEC has triggered one of the most divisive and expensive environmental battles in Maine history. Now the fight is reaching a climax, in court, at regulatory agencies, in the media and at the ballot box.
It’s an unusual battle in some regards. Most times, opponents try to stop a project from being started. The game here is to stop NECEC from being completed.
To meet contracts with Massachusetts utilities that already have been delayed years, NECEC and its investor-owned parent company took a high-stakes gamble. They have spent more than $350 million on equipment, labor, permitting and construction, calculating that they ultimately will prevail. And that doesn’t include more than $34 million on record-breaking campaign spending to fight the corridor referendum.
It’s also a perplexing fight for some voters just tuning in, because Question 1 may appear to be about something other than a transmission line.
Drivers pass roadside campaign signs reading, “Say No to Retroactive Laws.” Advertisements featuring grim-faced construction workers warn that politicians could shut down their businesses, cancel road projects and kill jobs if Question 1 passes.
This campaign is being carried out by a political action committee funded by the project developers. It focuses on the word “retroactively” in the law behind the ballot question. That word is part of language dealing with certain projects specifically on Maine’s public lands that date back as far as 2014, and a requirement for lawmakers to approve them.
Without any mention of the power line, this element of the No campaign seeks to plant a seed of doubt in the minds of voters. It conflates two sections of the law to mislead voters and create fear that by killing NECEC, they also may wound Maine’s economy.
These and other claims obscure what the New England Clean Energy Connect actually is.
NECEC is a high-voltage, direct-current transmission line with a capacity of 1,200 megawatts, enough energy to run roughly 1 million homes. It would carry energy from Quebec to an alternate-current converter station in Lewiston, where it would enter the New England electric grid. It’s being built largely for the benefit of Massachusetts electric customers, who will pay the $1 billion cost.
The 145-mile route is on land owned or controlled by CMP, except for a one-mile patch through Maine public lands near The Forks. Two-thirds of the route follows existing CMP power line corridors, some of which are being widened up to 75 feet to accommodate another set of poles.
A 53-mile stretch between The Forks and the Quebec border bisects undeveloped commercial forest. The area has been logged for generations but has high-value qualities for wildlife, recreation and biodiversity. Permits require the power corridor in this section to be no more than 54 feet wide. Fewer than 1,000 acres are being cleared in total for the project.