Credit: Ivan Radic / Flickr

This story was originally published by Canary Media.

How hard could it be to bring more carbon-free power to New England, a region with a professed dedication to tackling the climate crisis?

It hasn’t been easy or straightforward for the New England Clean Energy Connect, a long-running effort by Massachusetts to import 1,200 megawatts of electricity produced by hydropower from Quebec. Instead, the project’s storyline resembles the unrelenting mishaps of Odysseus’ journey home from Troy, or perhaps the more contemporary twists of a Shonda Rhimes show. The transmission line doesn’t need to get away with murder, but it is on trial this week in Maine.

The specifics have a distinctly Mainer flavor to them — a jury of nine Cumberland County residents in Maine’s Business and Consumer Court will now decide if the billion-dollar project can move forward. But the missteps and setbacks in Maine offer lessons for all the other places where more clean-energy transmission lines are needed to clean up the grid — and that’s pretty much everywhere.

The U.S. Department of Energy found there is a ​“pressing need” for more transmission infrastructure around the country to keep the grid reliable while incorporating more renewable power. However, recent history is riddled with failed or delayed projects, and the NECEC saga shows how much can go wrong along the way.

Populations that may be committed to clean energy in a general sense have fought the NECEC transmission line over its effect on the local environment. But many also decry the project for operating in a way that prioritized the corporate profits of a scandal-ridden utility over the input of the affected communities.

The case also hits on the structural difficulty of building transmission lines across states. Massachusetts leaders hope to claim the imported renewable energy toward their ambitious decarbonization goals. But to do so, the lines must traverse someone else’s territory; Maine gets the construction jobs along the way, but bears all the ecological downsides for a project instigated by its neighbor — not long after Massachusetts balked at building the Cape Wind project in its own backyard, for that matter.

A history of misfires

Massachusetts’ missteps started back in 2018, when a state panel picked a winner from a solicitation of all sorts of clean energy sources.

Rather than building new clean power plants, Massachusetts picked a transmission line to bring electricity from Canadian hydropower through New Hampshire, burying the power lines through the scenic White Mountains to minimize visual impact. But New Hampshire regulators denied a key permit just a week after Massachusetts trumpeted its selection, effectively killing that plan. Later that year, Massachusetts switched to the Maine transmission line, which would be built by that state’s largest utility, Central Maine Power, a subsidiary of Avangrid.

Picking your partners has huge ramifications for clean energy projects. Massachusetts bet its clean energy supply on a corporate affiliate of Central Maine Power, which had just bungled the launch of a new customer billing system in 2017, resulting in erroneously inflated bills for some and unjustified threats to cut off service for others, according to a detailed investigation by The Portland Press Herald. That article called the episode a ​“customer service disaster that shattered the reputation of Maine’s largest utility.” Fresh from that scandal, the utility got to work locking down approvals for a project that it clearly stood to benefit from, but which offered more ambiguous upside to everyone else in the state.

Opponents couldn’t stop the project from getting its necessary approvals from the Maine Public Utilities Commission. Usually, when a project goes through the regulatory process and gets approved, it’s safe to go ahead and build it. But after the utility spent $450 million on construction and cut a path through 124 miles of forest, opposition groups rallied voters to pass a ballot referendum to stop it in November 2021, in a lopsided 60%–40% win.

For many Mainers, the resistance wasn’t so much about disrupting pristine nature — much of the region in question is already a working industrial landscape, noted Mary Ignatiadis, who is working on a documentary about Maine’s rejection of the transmission project. Mainers objected to what they saw as the project being ​“rammed through” with ​“a lack of inclusive stakeholder engagement.”

“Urban policymakers and investors underestimate the intuition and intelligence of rural communities and write them off,” said Ignatiadis, who works in clean energy and got involved in the documentary after the planned transmission line was proposed to be routed near her partner’s parents’ home in Anson, Maine.

But the coalition opposing the project deserves some scrutiny as well, because it’s indicative of how clean transmission lines can incite a diverse group of antagonists.

In this case, environmental and conservation groups like the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Council of Maine were joined by well-funded fossil gas plant owners like NextEra and Calpine, which would suffer economically if cheap hydropower started competing with their polluting plants in New England’s wholesale market.

“Project opponents, particularly when bankrolled by incumbents looking out for their own bottom lines, will find opportunities to misinform the public and obstruct development,” said Ari Peskoe, director of the Electricity Law Initiative at Harvard Law.

A common critique is that Maine would suffer environmentally for the project on behalf of Massachusetts. There’s no doubt that the physical disruption would take place in Maine. But, Peskoe pointed out, though Massachusetts would keep the renewables credits for its climate accounting, Maine would still enjoy downward pressure on energy prices from the influx of cheap hydropower in New England’s regional grid.

“Maine consumers should pay lower prices due to that project,” he said.

Transmission proponents may decry the pushback to NECEC as NIMBYism obstructing the clean energy transition. But jumping to the NIMBY label is ​“unnecessarily derogatory,” according to Portland-based energy and environmental lawyer David Littell.

“Maine has permitted and allowed more large-scale wind, solar and new transmission than any other New England state,” said Littell, who previously served as a commissioner on the Maine Public Utilities Commission. ​“When good projects are proposed, they are eventually approved. And Maine processes work better than most others I’ve seen.”

Now, the jury’s specific task is to decide whether Central Maine Power had completed enough work by the time the referendum intervened that it can legally finish the project, per the Boston Globe write-up of the case.

Either way the trial goes, it’s clear that Massachusetts’ bet on a quick clean-energy fix did not pay off. A story I wrote about the original plan in January 2018 pointed out that ​“project organizers have also promised that the whole thing will be done in time to begin delivery of power in 2020, but projects of this scale have a knack for thwarting timelines and budgets.”

Five years later, the saga continues to elucidate how not to get transmission built in America.