An energy transition



When one looks at a map of Maine, it is easy to see that we share most of our border with Canada. In practical terms, we are at the end of the American pipeline for energy sources shared with our neighboring states, for Maine is the most easterly state in the union. This fact creates significant energy cost issues for Maine.

Given the push to embrace cleaner energy sources, does it not make sense to explore energy alternative options with our northerly neighbor?

Currently, there is a proposal by the New England Clean Energy Connect project to access Hydro-Quebec’s massive power resources with our electric grid through western Maine. The grand plan is to meet the mandated alternative energy demands of Massachusetts. But Maine stands to gain.

This $950-million project would expand an existing power line right-of-way in western Maine from Wyman Dam in Bingham to a new converter station/transmission hub outside Lewiston. Central Maine Power would secure additional land access in far northwest Maine — already in place — as well as permits from towns along the existing route, mostly completed, to build the connection to Hydro-Quebec’s transmission lines across the border in Quebec. Potentially, 1,700 jobs would be created over the three-year construction period, while power line-sited towns will receive new property tax payments for decades. None of the cost for the new DC power line is borne by Maine ratepayers.

Mainers could, however, see more secure and stable energy pricing, as the New England ISO energy market would be stabilized. Projections estimate that Maine’s combined energy bills could drop up to $40 million a year. Apart from the cost savings, the New England Clean Energy Connect project is necessary. Retiring coal and nuclear energy capacity must be replaced in the next few years, while regulators have stymied natural gas line expansion in New England even as demand soars. The contract with Hydro-Quebec also blocks non-dispatchable energy supply from the grid. Translation: Wind and solar, both non-instantaneous energy providers, cannot connect, eliminating one source of contention for western Maine residents concerned about wind-power proliferation beyond the existing Mayfield/Bingham wind farm.

Many affected western Maine towns are overwhelmingly in favor of the proposed CMP project. And why not? They have a history of embracing and understanding the impact of hydro-power. In 1929, Walter Wyman pushed to build Wyman dam in Bingham, at the time one of the largest dams in the east. There was opposition; the state even prevented Wyman and CMP from selling his electric power out of state. That law was repealed in the 1950s. Supplying inexpensive electric power up and down the Kennebec River valley, Wyman Dam helped a diverse cross-section of businesses to grow and prosper.

In a perspective on Wyman’s forward-thinking vision moving toward hydro-power, the Maine Historical Society’s review of his accomplishments includes the following. “Even in the 21st century, the shadow of this older way of life falls across the state, in towns of fierce attachment to locality, an ambivalence about modernity, and an acute sense of loss, as well as gain, that comes with progress.”

Our energy supplies need to be affordable and continuously scalable. Energy infrastructure tends to be very capital-intensive. Investors, regulators and users need to know it will work for decades so that our energy supply is reliable and sustainable. Before the New England Clean Energy Connect project is realized, opponents to hydro-power projects must offer realistic alternatives on the scale necessary to supplement the 85 percent of America’s energy currently based on coal, oil, nuclear and natural gas. Existing wind and solar infrastructure alternatives help our electric energy supply, yet they remain fractional contributors on the scale necessary for everyday life. Dispatchable, on-demand power such as Hydro-Quebec is offering to New England and Maine appears to be the best big solution to Maine’s perennial search for an affordable energy supply.