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Northern Maine wind power project wins PUC approval

Tux Turkel, Portland Press Herald, Maine  


    Jan. 31—Plans that would send a surge of wind-generated electricity from Aroostook County to the rest of New England got a boost Tuesday, after the Public Utilities Commission concluded that buying power from a proposed wind farm via a new transmission line would benefit Maine electric customers. Ultimately, the step could open the door to other clean-energy generation in northern Maine.

    The PUC estimated the projects would cost Maine ratepayers $1 billion for a 60% share of the project output, which would add an extra $1 a month to a typical residential electric bill for the first 10 years of the contract. The actual megawatt-hour cost of the electricity, however, wasn't made public.

    Maine's share of the power would be purchased by either Central Maine Power or Versant Power, or both.

    "These projects," said PUC Chair Philip Bartlett, "will provide significant benefits to Maine and the region, including jobs during construction, property tax revenue for local communities, and environmental benefits from new renewable energy displacing fossil fuels. The influx of renewable energy into the regional grid will also place downward pressure on electricity prices, benefitting consumers in Maine and throughout New England."

    The unanimous vote by the three commissioners came roughly a month after Massachusetts officials directed their electric distribution companies to enter into long-term contracts for up to 40% of the transmission project's service payments for up to 20 years. That cost sharing was crucial to the PUC's calculus that the projects would save Maine customers money over time.

    By law, the PUC had to determine that the costs to Maine electric customers are "reasonable and in the public interest," and if a partnership with Massachusetts could offset the costs. During Tuesday's deliberations, Bartlett directed the project developers to make an effort to seek additional power buyers that might further offset the impact on Maine's electric customers. He asked for monthly updates on progress.

    The vote represents a significant benchmark on the region's evolving journey towards an electrified economy powered largely by renewable energy. Aroostook County lacks a connection to New England's electric grid, and building a large new transmission line to unlock northern Maine's robust wind power resources has so far been too expensive.

    The PUC's action was a long-sought victory for economic development advocates in northern Maine led by Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, who had promoted the legislation and worked with Massachusetts officials to help form the partnership.

    "By unlocking the affordable, homegrown renewable energy just waiting to be generated in Aroostook County," Jackson said in a statement after the vote, "we can lower energy costs for working families, strengthen our energy independence and create good-paying jobs in rural Maine. With today's vote, we are the closest the state has ever been to making the northern Maine transmission line a reality and unleashing the untapped economic potential and power of Aroostook County."

    While agreeing that the increase meets the requirements set out in Maine law, Commissioner Patrick Scully sounded a note of caution about the cumulative impact of using electric rates to fund public policy goals, such as economic development and combating climate change.

    He noted that overall electric service costs have been increasing and are set to go higher, to pay for various policy goals. Those include using more electricity for heat and transportation, upgrading grid reliability in the face of more intense storms, encouraging solar energy development and, in the years ahead, offshore wind farms. Paying for all these initiatives places an unequal burden on low and moderate income residents, he said, who put a larger share of their finances to power.

    "My principle concern is the effect of this decision when combined with all the other costs imposed on ratepayers by public policy," he said.


    The proposed King Pine wind farm would be located west of Houlton and feature 179 wind turbines, comprising the largest onshore wind project east of the Mississippi River. Rated at 1,000 megawatts and expected to produce 3.18 billion kilowatt-hours a year, the $2 billion project could generate enough electricity to power 450,000 typical homes when running full tilt. It would be built by renewable power developer Longroad Energy of Boston.

    Power would flow over a new transmission line running more than 100 miles from southern Aroostook County to Pittsfield. Designed to carry up to 1,200 megawatts, the line would be built by the New York-based energy infrastructure developer LS Power, and estimated to be operational in 2028.

    Crucial details have yet to be decided or made public, such as the precise route of the corridor, how wide it would be and its potential impact on land that's important for ecology and recreation uses. It's noteworthy, however, that the process has received backing from leading environmental groups, such as the Natural Resources Council of Maine.

    "These are exactly the types of Maine-based clean energy projects we'll need to stabilize energy prices by reducing the region's dependence on fossil fuels," said Jack Shapiro, the group's climate and clean energy director.

    Shapiro added that the group will look for the developers "abide by the highest community engagement and environmental standards as the planning and construction moves ahead."

    The projects were selected in November following a bid process by the PUC. The Northern Maine Renewable Energy Development Program is a product of a 2021 state law, is intended to remove obstacles and promote the development of renewable energy resources in northern Maine.

    The PUC spent months scrutinizing competing proposals that sought to satisfy the law's criteria, including cost to taxpayers, economic benefits to northern Maine and contribution to the state's climate goals.

    Last October, Massachusetts signed a memorandum of understanding with the PUC, outlining terms by which the Bay State would consider the northern Maine energy proposals. The terms are based on requirements in a recently passed clean energy law in Massachusetts.

    The Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources and Attorney General's Office determined on Dec. 30 that the two projects would provide cost-effective clean energy to electric ratepayers in Massachusetts and the region, contribute to the state's decarbonization goals, and reduce ratepayer costs and improve energy security during winter months.

    The combination of these two projects will help lower wholesale electricity prices in Maine and New England, the commission determined, and save Mainers $1.08 billion over 20 years, based on contract payments minus estimates of future energy costs.

    Next up: Each project will face regular reviews in Maine from state and federal agencies. To move forward, both projects must win certificates of public convenience from the PUC, land-use permits from the Department of Environmental Protection and approvals from ISO-New England and federal agencies.

    Legislative approval also is needed. That requirement was put in place by referendum in 2021, for projects that meet the definition of high-voltage transmission line. The requirement was the product of opposition to the New England Clean Energy Connect transmission project in western Maine, which was rejected by Maine voters. Construction was subsequently suspended and its future hinges on ongoing legal challenges, specifically an April court trial.

    This story will be updated.


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