The second-most expensive campaign in Maine history is a debate over energy infrastructure.

New England Clean Energy Connect, a 145-mile-long transmission line will cut through the commercial timberlands of western Maine. Photo via Flickr/Creative Commons user bdewey

  • Maine voters will decide whether to move forward with a high-voltage transmission line to move hydropower from Quebec to Massachusetts.
  • Lobbying campaigns are being funded largely by rival energy groups.
  • The transmission line, New England Clean Energy Connect, received all its state and federal permits and began construction earlier this year.

By Brett Walton, Circle of Blue – October 28, 2021

The future of electric power in New England, or at least a piece of it, is the subject of a highly contested referendum in Maine.

Central Maine Power, having secured its state and federal permits, already started construction on New England Clean Energy Connect, a 145-mile-long, high-voltage transmission line stretching from the Canadian border to Lewiston. If completed, the line will deliver hydropower generated in Quebec to Massachusetts, in order to fulfill the state’s clean energy goals. A small fraction of the power, about 5 percent, will go to Maine.

What stands in its way? Question 1, appearing on the November 2 ballot thanks to a citizen petition and thousands of signatures, seeks to halt the development. It asks whether Maine voters want “to ban the construction of high-impact electric transmission lines in the Upper Kennebec Region.”

Voting yes has other consequences. It would require a two-thirds vote of the Legislature to approve such projects in the future. And it would apply the two-thirds vote retroactively to projects approved since 2014.

High-impact electric transmission lines, for the referendum’s purposes, are defined several ways, including those that are 50 miles or more in length and those that are not built primarily for electric reliability.

Groups opposing the transmission line — and thus supporting the referendum — do so on several grounds. They recoil at the trees that would be cut, even though those forests are largely commercial timberlands. They think that low-carbon goals could be met by generating more renewable power within New England. In sum, they think that Maine, which is not the primary user of the electricity, is paying too high a cost.

“We are not an extension cord for Massachusetts and the CMP Corridor is a terrible deal for Maine,” wrote Rep. Jennifer Poirier, a Republican in the State House who represents a district just east of the transmission corridor.

The principal campaign group opposing the project is Mainers for Local Power, which spent $24.3 million through October 27 and is led by energy companies NextEra, Calpine, and Vistra. NextEra operates a natural gas plant and several solar facilities in Maine, while Calpine and Vistra operate natural gas plants in the state.

Advocates, on the other hand, say the transmission line is a vital springboard to a low-carbon future. They claim annual reductions of 3 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, equivalent to 700,000 vehicles. They boast about construction jobs, local tax revenue, and side benefits in the deal such as $170 million for rural broadband, rate relief, and electric vehicle infrastructure. They worry that scrapping the project after it was approved by state and federal regulators would set a bad precedent for the state and subject future permitting decisions to partisan politics.

Proponents of the transmission line have spent more money on their campaign. Through October 27, Clean Energy Matters, Hydro-Québec Maine Partnership, Mainers for Fair Laws, and Vote No to Protect Maine have collectively spent about $80.9 million, largely raised from the companies who would benefit from the project.

All that spending adds up. According to the Bangor Daily News, the transmission line referendum is the second-most expensive election campaign in state history, behind the 2020 U.S. Senate race.

In approving the transmission line application, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection reduced the width of the corridor from 150 feet to 54 feet along the forested Segment 1, which begins at the Canadian border and ends 53 miles away at The Forks. This is the only new segment of the route. The other two-thirds is expansion of an existing transmission corridor.

The DEP also ordered Central Maine Power to conserve 40,000 acres in western Maine and spend nearly $1.9 million to aid fish movement by replacing road culverts.

The ballot measure is the second attempt by campaigners for a statewide referendum on transmission lines. An effort in 2020 was invalidated by the Maine Supreme Court.