Editor’s Note: The following story first appeared in The Maine Monitor’s free environmental newsletter, Climate Monitor, that is delivered to inboxes for every Friday morning. Sign up for the free newsletter to get important environmental news by registering at this link.
By many measures, Aroostook County is rich in untapped renewable energy potential. The County and areas around it check all the boxes prized by developers — very good wind speeds, large areas of mostly undeveloped, flat-ish land for solar, plus a sparse population and a general openness on the part of local leaders to economic opportunities.
Tapping this potential, for many in Maine’s energy world, has become a holy grail that has remained out of reach for decades, and that the state Public Utilities Commission has now taken a big new step toward trying to seize.
The reason for the challenge is surprising: Northern Maine is not connected directly to the rest of the U.S. power grid. Instead, any generators with excess electrons to sell must take the long way around — routing power out through New Brunswick, Canada, and then back into New England and points south.
It’s an expensive detour, which is why the region hasn’t had more projects lining up to tap its purportedly rich renewable resources — and why some, like ReEnergy’s biomass plants, have closed for lack of affordable export options. The projects that have succeeded have generally either sold their power locally, through net metering or direct agreements with, say, a paper mill; paid to sell through Canada, as in the case of Mars Hill Wind; or built what are called “generator lead lines,” a lower-voltage transmission option to connect a single project directly to the New England grid.
A new state law, spearheaded by Senate President Troy Jackson (D-Allagash), required the Maine Public Utilities Commission to try and solve this problem once and for all with a procurement process, seeking cost-effective options for transmission, wind, solar and biomass energy in Northern Maine. The PUC announced the results last week, and a few days ago published scant details on the winning projects, which face a long and uncertain road to actually being financed and built in the way state officials are hoping.
It’s important to emphasize that no new wind or transmission projects have the green light for construction in Northern Maine just yet. The PUC has only made its picks for what officials would like to see built if — and it’s a big if — the projects’ financing can fulfill the legislature’s requirement of “minimizing the cost of energy available to the State’s consumers” (more on that in a moment).
If you’ve followed the CMP corridor’s saga, you know these permitting and financing processes can take years and are full of potential legal and political pitfalls. The PUC notes this in its order selecting these winning projects: “This Order does not address the myriad regulatory approvals and permits that a Project of this nature will require,” it says, listing several that bidders had to discuss in their still-confidential applications, including, notably, “approval by the Maine Legislature for a proposed Project that meets the definition of a ‘high impact transmission line’ … with respect to Question 1: Citizen’s Initiative.” That’s the successful 2021 referendum that has so far blocked the CMP corridor and is still being litigated in court.
With that major caveat aside, we now have our first look at the proposals the PUC thinks are Northern Maine’s best bet to solve its decades-long renewables export challenge. The transmission line, from New York-based LS Power, would be able to move 1,200 megawatts of power — the same as the CMP corridor. The wind project, which Boston-based developer Longroad Energy calls King Pine, could generate up to 1,000 MW.
For scale, that’s enough to power several hundred thousand homes — the actual range varies depending on lots of external factors. Northern New England’s last remaining nuclear plant, Seabrook in New Hampshire, generates 1,200 MW. The electricity demand across all of New England as I write this, on a mild weekday evening in fall, is about 13,500 MW.
Location-wise, the documents linked above show King Pine Wind would include 179 turbines northwest of Houlton. The LS power line would run for more than 100 miles, according to a press release. Its PUC filing says it would begin at an unspecified “northern terminus at a new substation in southern Aroostook County” — the PUC decided against an optional northward extension of 44 more miles — and end at a new substation in Pittsfield, theoretically cutting southwest toward Bangor along the I-95 corridor or thereabouts. It would then continue via existing corridors and substations to the coast in Wiscasset.
LS hopes to have its big state permit (a CPCN, or “certificate of public convenience and necessity”) by September 2023. They’d spend the next three years acquiring land rights and additional permits, then begin construction in fall 2026 with a goal of getting the power line up and running in early 2029. King Pine’s process would follow about a year and a half after the power line.
The price of these projects is perhaps the biggest single variable still ahead. The PUC says the power line will cost nearly $2.8 billion, but that the wind project knocks nearly $1.1 billion off the cost — giving the package a $1.7-billion pricetag over 30 years. Massachusetts has already signaled it wants “buy” at least some power from Northern Maine — I put “buy” in quotes because the projects’ electrons would be shared across the regional grid, as in the case of the CMP corridor, but Massachusetts would pay to claim some of the renewable energy benefits it needs to meet its climate goals.
Massachusetts also has until the end of this year to decide if LS and King Pine fit the bill for its plans. “This leaves the Commission in the challenging position,” the PUC order says, “of not knowing how much of the cost of these Projects Maine ratepayers are being asked to finance. Without this knowledge, it is not possible to make a determination as to whether the cost to Maine ratepayers is reasonable and in the public interest. Accordingly … the Commission reserves for later determination how much of the Projects Maine ratepayers should fund. This approach allows LS Power and Longroad to move forward and seek partners, which could include Massachusetts or other entities, while not committing Maine ratepayers to an unknown share of the total cost.”
This is the biggest if, as I mentioned earlier — whether Massachusetts will sign on, and what other partners might chip in to offset any or all cost-sharing for Mainers. Energy industry folks I spoke to about this procurement process in the summer, before LS and King Pine were selected, said it’s always been these high costs that sank past efforts to take hold of the Northern Maine energy holy grail.
And siting will be a huge if too, in a state where groups from across the political spectrum have relentlessly fought the CMP corridor, a project fully paid for by Massachusetts with its power generated out of state. The Natural Resources Council of Maine, one key CMP corridor opponent, lauded the PUC’s Northern Maine picks on the conditions that they’re “responsibly sited and built with community support” — metrics where NRCM says CMP falls short.
But the anti-CMP corridor referendum that NRCM helped pass created yet another new barrier for a long-sought Northern Maine line to clear. We’re just at the beginning of another years-long process of answering these questions, to see if anyone can get the wind power blowing in Aroostook County onto the New England grid in a way that helps fight climate change at a manageable cost.
To read the full edition of this newsletter, see Climate Monitor: New details on Northern Maine wind & transmission plans.
Annie Ropeik has been given the keys to the Climate Monitor newsletter while its regular author, the Monitor’s environmental reporter Kate Cough, is on leave. Reach Annie with story ideas at: firstname.lastname@example.org.