By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
PORTLAND — A Maine business court jury paved the way to restart construction on a high-voltage transmission line to carry Hydro-Quebec power to Massachusetts.
The 145-mile transmission line — New England Clean Energy Connect — is expected to deliver 1,200 megawatts of hydro electricity to the Bay State, after New Hampshire regulators turned down the Northern Pass transmission project in 2019.
The $1 billion Maine project is expected to help Massachusetts meet its clean energy goals of cutting emissions by 50 percent by the end of the decade.
The project was halted in 2021 when a statewide referendum opposing the project was approved by about 60 percent of voters after Avangrid, the parent company of Central Maine Power, had spent about $450 million on the project.
Last August the Maine Supreme Court ruled the referendum may have violated Avangrid’s rights by blocking the project retroactively after the company spent the $450 million.
The court said the key is if the utility had begun the project in good faith after receiving all the necessary permits or if it accelerated construction to obtain vesting rights prior to the referendum. The Maine Supreme Court remanded that determination to a lower court to decide.
A jury in a business court ruled 9-0 Thursday the company acted in good faith and the project could continue.
In a statement, Hydro-Quebec said, “Hydro-Québec and its partner in Maine, NECEC Transmission LLC, will collaborate to determine next steps.”
The decision could be appealed.
Unlike Northern Pass, the Maine project would have reserved some of the alternative hydro power for Maine residents and the project had the backing of some environmental groups such as The Conservation Law Foundation.
A number of environmental organizations and existing power generators, such as the owner of Seabrook Station, NextEra Energy, opposed the project as they did Northern Pass.
The Natural Resources Council of Maine contends home grown projects like wind and solar should be the state’s clean energy focus, not a project that shifts energy for maximum profits.
Ultimately the ratepayers of Massachusetts will pay for the Maine transmission line if it is completed, and Hydro-Quebec will receive about $10 billion in revenue over 20 years if it goes forward.
If the project does not go forward, Hydro-Quebec said it would have to take a $530 million charge which includes the $450 million in construction cost already incurred, as well as other costs associated with the project, according to court filings.
Opponents of the project have 30 days to appeal the court ruling.
In New Hampshire, environmental groups argued Northern Pass would be a scar on the state’s face and would damage the character and scenic beauty that attracts tourists here.
The decade-long battle over the high-voltage transmission line ended when the state Supreme Court upheld the Site Evaluation Committee’s 7-0 decision that the project failed to prove “the project would not unduly affect the orderly development of the region,” one of the criteria needed for approval.
The committee cited the lack of credible and sufficient evidence presented by Eversource that prevented members from making an informed decision.
The New Hampshire project was estimated to cost $1.6 billion, cover 192 miles from Pittsburg to Deerfield and cost Eversouce $319 million by the time the utility pulled the plug on the project after the New Hampshire Supreme Court upheld the SEC’s decision.
In December, Gov. Chris Sununu floated the idea of a new version of Northern Pass to bring cheap hydro-electricity to the state to combat the high price of fossil-fuel generated power.
However, that power may not be readily available, as the Crown corporation Hydro-Quebec is under pressure to do more to help the province meet its goal of net zero emissions by 2050, which would mean less exportation to the Northeast states.
However, Hydro-Quebec has said it will continue to honor the contracts it has with Massachusetts and New York to provide power.
Electric prices spiked last year after Russia began the war in Ukraine upsetting the global energy markets, particularly natural gas, which accounts for almost 60 percent of New England’s power generation. The war doubled and tripled prices as worldwide demand spiked with many countries boycotting the Russian commodity.
A change in the large energy facility approval process making its way through the New Hampshire legislature raised concern after Sununu floated the idea of resurrecting Northern Pass. Under the proposal, the public would not have nearly as much input as it currently has in decision-making.
There are currently no major projects before the SEC at this time.
Garry Rayno may be reached at email@example.com.