New England line would have to take the scenic route

Source: Saqib Rahim, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, April 26, 2018

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker’s (R) clean energy ambitions are approaching a new challenge: whitewater rapids in Maine.

Plans are proceeding for the New England Clean Energy Connect, a $950 million, 147-mile transmission project that would send hydropower from Quebec toward high-value Massachusetts markets.

To get there, it would have to traverse Maine, including the Kennebec River Gorge, a scenic stretch of a popular recreation area. Central Maine Power Co., the Avangrid Inc. subsidiary that’s proposed the project, said it can cross in other locations, or underground, but at higher cost.

Rafting companies in the area are just starting to grapple with the possibility that there could be a power line overhead as soon as 2022. Cliff Stevens, who owns Moxie Outdoor Adventures, thinks that would turn off some customers.

“A lot of people like the rapids, but just as many like floating along in this undeveloped, pristine river. It’s clean, there’s no trash,” he said. “Very few places you can go that … looks untouched all the time.”

It might be just one small stretch of a much larger undertaking, but neither Avangrid nor Baker can afford to take it lightly. As Baker tries to kick off his renewable energy program with a power line to Canada, local regulators and interests are showing their willingness to block him.

Last month, another project, Northern Pass, was shelved because it couldn’t get approval from New Hampshire regulators. Northern Pass, which had most of its other permits in hand, was Baker’s first choice to meet a 2017 solicitation for 9.45 terawatt-hours of renewable energy a year (Energywire, March 29).

Now the Baker administration is pivoting to the New England Clean Energy Connect, or NECEC, and it’s hearing similar notes of optimism about the permitting side.

“We’re highly confident of our ability to deliver this on time and within the budget,” Avangrid CEO James Torgerson said in an earnings call this week.

Torgerson told investors that his goal is to have all permits secured by the end of 2019 and the project completed by 2022.

Avangrid sees advantages

Avangrid says the project has several qualities that fix the flaws that have thwarted other projects.

For one, it says, the project already owns the land rights for the entirety of its path, and about two-thirds of that is within existing transmission pathways. Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R) supports the project, and Avangrid claims to have the support of at least a dozen towns along the route.

Perhaps mindful of the risks, though, the company isn’t booking NECEC as part of its five-year outlook, instead framing it as a “highly likely” source of growth.

And some environmental groups aren’t entirely satisfied yet. The Conservation Law Foundation is among those pressing Maine and Massachusetts regulators to make sure NECEC is built with minimal environmental impacts.

As for the Kennebec River Gorge, Avangrid is telling Maine regulators there’s no way to hide a power line over a river, but other pathways would cause even more disruption.

The line could cross at two other locations, Avangrid said in a filing this month, or it could drill a hole for the line beneath the river. The first two options would make the project longer; the third option would require about 2,900 feet of horizontal drilling.

Both options would add about $30 million to the project cost, Avangrid said.

“[T]he Preferred Alternative will have the least adverse effect on the natural and recreational features of the river segment when compared with the three potential alternatives,” it said last month in a filing to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

Stevens, who owns Moxie Outdoor Adventures, said he’s not necessarily for or against the project yet; he sees it as inevitable.

If it does get built, he said, he’d like it to be as unobtrusive as possible: running underground, for instance, or running it along a new, comely bridge “that has some character.”

“I think I’d lean toward burying the line beneath the river,” he said. “If it has to happen. I hope it doesn’t happen.”