The bipartisan infrastructure bill that recently passed the House and that passed the Senate months ago may see some roadblocks. It contains $73 billion for the country’s electric grid and power structures, but the American people may not want that transmission infrastructure in their back yard. On Election Day, Maine voters, by a margin of 59 percent to 41 percent, rejected a transmission line through their state that would be carrying hydroelectric power from Canada to Massachusetts. The vote is a rejection of the New England Clean Energy Connect Project (NECEC)—a 145-mile, $1 billion 1,200 megawatt high-voltage transmission line—about $6.9 million per mile.
The more renewable-energy capacity that gets added to the grid, the more transmission capacity must be built. The best wind, solar, and hydropower resources are in rural areas where electricity use is low, requiring transmission lines to move the power from those remote sites to cities where consumption is higher. In 2012, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimated that if the United States were to obtain 90 percent of its electricity from renewable sources, it would have to roughly double its high-voltage transmission capacity. The United States now has about 240,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines, much of it in areas already accustomed to it. To convert the electric grid to 90 percent renewable energy would require enough high-voltage transmission to circle the Earth about 10 times. Assuming a cost of $4 million per mile, building the 240,000 miles of high-voltage transmission would cost about $1 trillion and at the cost per mile of the NECEC, it would be about $1.7 trillion. Biden’s $73 billion would be just a drop in the bucket to reach 9/10ths of the way to his 2035 target of a carbon free electric sector.
The NECEC Project and Maine Rejection
To meet contracts with Massachusetts utilities that already have been delayed years, NECEC and its investor-owned parent company spent more than $350 million on equipment, labor, permitting and construction. They also spent more than $34 million on campaign spending to fight the referendum that Maine voters accepted, which is about $84 per voter.
The 145-mile route of the NECEC is on land owned or controlled by Central Maine Power (CMP), except for a one-mile piece through Maine public lands near The Forks. Two-thirds of the route follows existing CMP power line corridors, some of which are being widened up to 75 feet to accommodate another set of poles. A 53-mile stretch between The Forks and the Quebec border bisects undeveloped commercial forest. The area has been logged for generations but also contains wildlife and opportunities for recreation and biodiversity. Fewer than 1,000 acres are being cleared in total for the project. NECEC secured all state and federal permits before construction began last winter, but at least one of those approvals is now getting a second look.
A Maine Superior Court judge in August voided a lease across the one-mile stretch of public lands after ruling that state officials failed to properly conduct a review to decide whether the line significantly altered the land. CMP and the state are appealing the ruling. The Maine Supreme Judicial Court is allowing construction to continue during the appeal, except on the public lands.
On Wednesday after the outcome of the referendum, Avangrid Inc., the parent company of Central Maine Power and NECEC Transmission LLC, filed a lawsuit in Maine state court challenging the referendum, alleging it violates “both state and federal law.” Avangrid is a subsidiary of the Spanish utility Iberdrola, the third largest renewable energy firm in the United States.
The rejection of the NECEC project by Maine voters marks the second time that Massachusetts has been defeated in attempting to get hydropower from Canada. In 2018, New Hampshire regulators rejected a high-voltage electricity transmission project called Northern Pass Transmission that was to bring power from Quebec hydroelectric facilities to Massachusetts through New Hampshire’s White Mountains. The 192-mile, $1.6 billion project was vetoed by the New Hampshire Site Evaluation Committee in a unanimous vote.
Other Defeats for Transmission Lines
In 2017, Iowa enacted a law prohibiting the use of eminent domain for transmission lines. The move doomed the Rock Island Clean Line, a 500-mile, $2 billion, high-voltage direct-current transmission line that was going to carry electricity from Iowa to Illinois. The opposition forced the project’s developer, Houston-based Clean Line Energy Partners, to withdraw its application for the project in Iowa.
In 2018, Clean Line Energy Partners also announced it was suspending its years-long effort to build a 720-mile, $2.5 billion transmission line across the state of Arkansas. The Plains & Eastern Clean Line aimed to carry wind energy from Oklahoma to customers in the southern and southeastern US. But the project faced fierce opposition in Arkansas where the state’s entire Congressional delegation opposed the deal.
A similar high-voltage project, the $2.3 billion, 780-mile Grain Belt Express, has been delayed for years by opposition from rural residents in Missouri. First proposed in 2010, the 4,000-megawatt project is designed to move electricity from Kansas to Indiana and other states. But in 2015, the Missouri Public Service Commission blocked the project after concluding the cost to the state’s landowners exceeded its benefits. That project still hasn’t been built.
President Biden is calling for a doubling of transmission in the United States to meet his net zero electricity target by 2035. Already, additional transmission is running into serious opposition. Americans need to realize that Biden and his Congressional Democrats do not seem to understand energy, nor are they working toward providing the energy needs of the American public. Certainly, Biden’s Secretary of Energy Granholm has demonstrated her lack of understanding of oil statistics so strikingly that asking her to understand the complexities of the electric market would probably prove mind-boggling. Americans, like those in Maine, need to let their elected officials know that the direction the Biden administration is taking toward energy is not the way to go and that they are proposing to spend Federal taxpayers’ dollars foolishly.