Transmission lines in the forest
Credit: Vladimka Production / Shutterstock

New England’s reliance on natural gas for electricity generation is expected to cost the region dearly this winter. And in Connecticut, political leaders are suggesting that their northern neighbors are standing in the way of relief.

State Sen. Norm Needleman, co-chair of the legislative Energy and Technology Committee, recently said in a radio interview that efforts to diversify the regional grid’s energy supply by importing more hydropower from Canada have been scuttled by New Hampshire and Maine, which turned down plans for more transmission lines through their states.

“I beseech the people of Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine, where we — with adequate transmission lines coming through their states — could access way more power generation from Hydro-Québec,” Needleman said. 

Gov. Ned Lamont has expressed a similar sentiment, telling a reporter, “We’ve got to get access to the hydro-power coming out of Québec. It’s been shut down by New Hampshire and Maine and referendums.”

The comments suggest growing frustration with an inability to access more Canadian hydropower, a plentiful form of renewable electricity, as states are working to meet emissions reduction mandates, move away from fossil fuels, and improve system reliability. The existing transmission lines between New England and Québec have a capacity limit of 2,225 megawatts.

The proposed 1,090-megawatt Northern Pass tie between Hydro-Québec and New Hampshire was unable to secure state siting approvals and was canceled in 2019. And New England Clean Energy Connect, a proposed 1,200-megawatt line through Maine, was halted last year after voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot referendum to block it.

The latter proposal may yet move forward, as several recent court decisions have revived the project, which “remains part of Hydro-Québec’s long-term vision, as the company is committed to supporting the transition to a clean-energy future, both within Québec and beyond its borders,” said company spokesperson Lynn St-Laurent. 

With New England facing price shocks from high natural gas prices, as well as potential power shortages if gas supplies run low, it’s increasingly clear that the region must do more to work together on transmission planning, experts say.

The intense and prolonged transmission battles demonstrated that “it’s incredibly hard to build transmission,” said Kerrick Johnson, vice president of strategic innovation at Vermont Electric Power Company, a transmission utility owned by the state’s 17 distribution utilities. “But the need for collaboration among the New England states and Québec has never been more important. Offshore wind is coming. But in the meantime, we are facing a low-risk probability — but of consequence should it happen — of controlled outages in the dead of winter.”

Needleman said his comments about the northern states were made in the context of his general frustration with energy policy, which he finds “mind-numbingly complicated” and frequently contentious. 

“People are going to find fault with solar on farmland; there is consternation around offshore wind because it may impact the fisheries,” he said. “All of these concerns are absolutely correct, but we have to make hard choices if we are going to move away from fossil fuels. Hydropower is the closest available source of clean power. We just have to figure out a way to get it to New England.”

Years of back-and-forth

Both the New Hampshire and Maine transmission projects were driven by Massachusetts, which in 2017 sought proposals for 9.45 terawatt-hours of renewable energy annually. The state first selected Northern Pass, a $1.6 billion proposal from Eversource and Hydro-Québec. 

The plan drew fierce resistance from the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, as well as from residents of the state’s rural northern communities. Maine and New Hampshire are the two most forested states in the nation, at upwards of 80% each. 

After years of back-and-forth over the proposed route, and $40 million in land purchases by the developers, the New Hampshire Site Evaluation Committee denied Northern Pass a permit. The regulators questioned the project’s purported benefits and expressed concern about its impact on small towns. The state Supreme Court upheld that decision on appeal in 2019.

Massachusetts next selected New England Clean Energy Connect, a proposed 145-mile, 1,200-megawatt transmission line through Maine. But that plan too faced stiff opposition, fueled in large part by three competing energy companies, including NextEra Energy, the country’s largest utility, which bankrolled the campaign for the ballot referendum. NextEra owns the Seabrook nuclear power plant in New Hampshire.

The Natural Resources Council of Maine was a vocal opponent of the proposed transmission path through the state’s North Woods, and argued that an expansion of hydropower on the grid would displace new renewable energy projects in Maine. 

“Publicly, it sounded like it was for Massachusetts and not for Maine, even if that wasn’t true in substance,” said Dr. John Parsons, deputy director for research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research. “It’s to the benefit of the region as a whole. But it was Massachusetts buying the power and claiming the renewable energy credits.”

Nearly 60% of voters approved the referendum that effectively halted the project. Rebecca Schultz, a senior advocate for the Natural Resources Council, attributed the outcome to voters’ deep distrust of Central Maine Power and what she viewed as a “fatally flawed” plan.

But the battle is not over yet. In August, the Maine Supreme Court ruled that the referendum was unconstitutional if the permits the developers had already obtained were acquired in accordance with the law and the construction on the line begun in good faith. It returned the case to a lower court, where a trial on those questions will begin in April. 

Two other decisions have also gone in the project’s favor. The Supreme Court overturned a lower court decision blocking the state from leasing public land for the transmission line. And a federal district court rejected a challenge by environmental groups objecting to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ issuance of a permit for the project. 

A spokesperson for the Natural Resources Council of Maine declined to comment on whether the organization will continue to oppose the project.

‘Cash on the table’

A recent study from MIT’s Center for Energy found that expanded transmission for hydropower creates one of the region’s cheapest paths to 100% carbon-free electricity.

In modeling how the regional power system might look in 2050, the researchers found that greater transmission capacity would result in an efficient, two-way flow between the countries, with Canada importing renewable power from New England when prices are low, and New England buying hydropower when renewable energy is scarce. 

“We found that hydro complemented wind and solar,” Parsons said. “The most important thing was to use the hydro differently than we have up until now. Instead of as a base load generator, it’s more of a way to balance the system, increase efficiencies, and save money.”

Adding 4 gigawatts of transmission lines between New England and Québec was estimated to lower the costs of a zero-emission power system across New England and Québec by 17% to 28%.

Expanded hydro isn’t the only path to net zero, Parsons said, “but there’s cash on the table there if the politicians can find a way to make sure it’s shared by everybody.”

While New England is struggling to bring more power down from Canada, the neighboring state of New York has greenlighted a 339-mile underground transmission line, the Champlain Hudson Power Express, that will carry 1,250 megawatts of power to that state from Hydro-Québec. That project was less controversial, as it is being built in the same state that sought and contracted the energy, said St-Laurent, of Hydro-Québec.

“To have the policy, the process and the project all under one roof, so to speak, was helpful and eliminated a lot of opportunities for competing interests to attempt to sabotage the process,” she said.

The same backers, Transmission Developers Inc., a division of Blackstone, have secured the necessary approvals to build a 1,000-megawatt transmission cable from Canada through Vermont, primarily under Lake Champlain. Called the New England Clean Power Link, the project has yet to win a contract for power, but Johnson, of Vermont Electric Power Company, said it is “very much alive.”

“We have secured an agreement with them for payments over 20 years totaling $126 million,” which would be credited back to ratepayers, he said. “The transmission line would help to reduce customer bills, in addition to aiding system reliability, decarbonizing power supply and driving down overall power costs.”

The developers did not respond to requests for comment.

Looking ahead, a joint transmission initiative launched recently to evaluate transmission options for offshore wind sets a “strong precedent” for broader cooperation among the New England states, said Melissa Birchard, director of clean energy and grid transition for the Acadia Center. The New England States Transmission Initiative is gathering information about the infrastructure necessary to integrate the many offshore wind projects expected to come online over the next decade and beyond.

“Multi-state initiatives can provide a central place for community input, instead of the traditional model where a state like Massachusetts may have no direct access to early input from communities in northern New England,” Birchard said. “The New England states need to work together to get transmission done right, and as quickly as possible.”

Massachusetts and Maine may yet partner on such an effort. Massachusetts’ Department of Energy Resources indicated last month that it sees good reason for ratepayers there to share the cost of a 1,000-megawatt onshore wind project approved for northern Maine.

This article first appeared on Energy News Network and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.