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Home World A fight over America’s energy future erupts on the Canadian border

A fight over America’s energy future erupts on the Canadian border

Hundreds of ft under a distant forest close to Hudson Bay, Serge Abergel inspected the spinning generators on the coronary heart of the most important subterranean energy plant on the planet, an enormous facility that converts the water of the La Grande River right into a present of renewable electrical energy robust sufficient to energy a midsize metropolis.

Abergel, a senior government at Hydro Quebec, has for years been engaged on an bold effort to ship electrical energy produced from the river down by the woods of northern Maine and on to Massachusetts, the place it will assist the state meet its local weather objectives.

Yet at this time, work on the $1 billion undertaking is at a standstill.

Over the previous few years, an unlikely coalition of residents, conservationists and Native Americans waged a rowdy marketing campaign funded by rival power firms to quash the hassle. The opponents received a serious victory in November when Maine voters handed a measure that halted the undertaking. Following a authorized combat, proponents appealed to the state Supreme Court, which is able to hear arguments on the case Tuesday about whether or not such a referendum is authorized.

At stake is a couple of transmission line. The fiercely contested undertaking is emblematic of fights occurring across the nation as plans to construct clean-energy infrastructure run into opposition from residents proof against new growth, preservationists and different firms with their very own financial pursuits at stake.

“At the end of the day, everyone might want more transmission for renewable energy,” stated Timothy Fox, vp at ClearView Energy Partners, an impartial analysis agency. “But no one wants it in their backyard.”

The undertaking in Maine, generally known as New England Clean Energy Connect, or NECEC, is the sort of large-scale, clean-energy infrastructure that might be required if the United States is to shift away from fossil fuels — a transition scientists say is urgently wanted to forestall additional catastrophic local weather change. According to a serious research by Princeton University, the nation should triple its transmission capability by 2050 to have an opportunity at reaching its aim of not including any extra carbon dioxide to the ambiance by that time.

For years, all the things in Maine was going in line with plan.

State and federal regulators carefully studied the undertaking and gave approvals at each stage. Governors in Massachusetts and Maine had been on board.

And Hydro Quebec and Avangrid, its associate on the undertaking that can function the transmission traces and gear within the U.S., spent tons of of tens of millions of {dollars} readying building and putting in the primary 78 of greater than 832 new high-voltage transmission poles that will permit power produced in northern Canada to maintain the lights on in Boston.

But there was resistance to the undertaking virtually from the beginning. Maine residents, annoyed by years of poor service by Central Maine Power, a neighborhood utility owned by Avangrid, discovered frequent trigger with environmental organizations skeptical of hydropower.

Those native teams discovered deep-pocketed supporters in three power firms that function pure fuel and nuclear vegetation within the area and that stood to lose cash if cheaper hydropower entered the New England grid.

After opponents bought a referendum query in regards to the undertaking on final November’s poll, either side threw cash on the concern, spending greater than $100 million — a file for a Maine initiative — on a slugfest that tied the transmission undertaking to hot-button points like gun rights and the Affordable Care Act.

Although Hydro Quebec and Avangrid outspent the opposition by a margin of 3-1, residents weren’t bought on the deserves of the undertaking. On Election Day, 59% of Maine voters permitted a measure that introduced work on the NECEC to a screeching halt, no less than in the interim.

If the Maine Supreme Court sides with Hydro Quebec and Avangrid, work on the undertaking may resume and electrical energy could possibly be flowing from the reservoirs of Canada into the New England grid as quickly as 2024.

But if the NECEC is scrapped, it’s going to characterize a serious setback for these working to wean the United States off fossil fuels, in line with impartial power specialists. Development of a utility-scale clean-energy undertaking requires money and time, and the prospect that it could possibly be killed by voters — even after it’s vetted and permitted by authorities regulators — would inject a stage of threat that might scare away funding.

“As hard as it is to explain and defend a project like this, it is so easy for people to come and torpedo it, and they don’t even have to tell the truth,” Abergel stated. “If you can put a stop to these long-term projects a year before they’re completed, it raises big questions about the energy transition and how we’re going to get it done.”

‘Rich With Water’

Before there was a pricey and acrimonious battle in Maine, there was a easy, idealistic mandate: Gov. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, a Republican, wished to cut back his state’s dependence on fossil fuels.

On a sunny Monday in August 2016, Baker appeared earlier than the statehouse in Boston and signed a legislation supposed to ramp up using renewable power in Massachusetts. Hydroelectricity, he stated, would “play a crucial role in the Commonwealth’s new balanced and diverse energy portfolio by offering clean, reliable and cost-effective baseload, 24/7/365.”

Baker’s deal with the always-on nature of hydroelectricity was intentional. While wind farms and photo voltaic panels can now produce substantial quantities of energy, they can not generate electrical energy when the air continues to be or the solar is just not shining. But Massachusetts occurs to be comparatively near one of many largest sources of unpolluted, constant power on the planet: Canadian hydropower.

Engineers have been tapping the Quebec area’s intensive community of rivers to supply renewable electrical energy for greater than a century. Today, Hydro Quebec’s 61 hydropower vegetation produce 95% of all electrical energy within the province, and costs are decrease than wherever within the United States.

Hydro Quebec has additionally been exporting energy to the United States and different Canadian provinces for many years. Five traces run from the corporate’s grid into New York, Vermont and Massachusetts, and one other main transmission undertaking is within the works to convey hydropower into the New York grid.

“We were blessed with a geology that is rich with water,” stated Sophie Brochu, the corporate’s CEO, sitting in her workplace in downtown Montreal. “The electricity is competitive and clean.”

So when Baker set a aim of drastically lowering Massachusetts’ emissions, Hydro Quebec appeared like an apparent alternative.

And whereas Massachusetts was paying for the undertaking, prospects elsewhere, together with in Maine, stood to profit. Both states draw power from the ISO New England energy grid, a community of energy vegetation and transmission traces that serves the northeast United States. Lower power costs from hydropower would cut back prices for residents from Connecticut to Vermont.

By final yr, work on the undertaking was nicely underway. Hydro Quebec was clearing forest the place it will set up about 60 miles of transmission traces in Canada. Foliage had been cleared alongside many of the 145 mile-long transmission route by Maine. And in Lewiston, Maine, land had been ready for a $330 million facility that will plug the electrical energy from Canada into the U.S. grid and ship substantial tax revenues to town.

Many Mainers noticed it in a different way.

Sandi Howard was rafting by a picturesque gorge on the Kennebec River in May 2018 when she first heard about plans to construct transmission traces close by. While a lot of the realm across the river is crisscrossed with logging roads and cleared of timber, it is usually a well-liked vacation spot for rafters, snowmobilers and campers.

Howard quickly emerged as one of many undertaking’s main antagonists. Armed with a Facebook group and a ardour for the land, Howard unfold the phrase about what she stated was a essentially flawed undertaking.

“As I started learning more, the concerns started to mushroom,” she stated. “There’s a number of reasons why the project is simply a bad deal for Maine.”

Chief amongst Howard’s worries is the impact the brand new transmission poles could have on the native surroundings.

While roughly 100 miles of the brand new wire might be strung alongside an current high-transmission hall that might be widened, the undertaking can even require a minimize by 53 miles of largely uninhabited forest close to the Canadian border. Steel poles might be erected close to streams the place brook trout spawn and in places that might disrupt scenic vistas.

Those issues, together with questions on whether or not the undertaking would really cut back greenhouse fuel emissions, persuaded outstanding environmental teams, together with native Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Council of Maine, to oppose the undertaking. Critics of hydropower contend that the large-scale flooding required to create reservoirs results in emissions of methane, a potent planet-warming fuel.

And they are saying the general local weather advantages might be minimal as a result of Hydro Quebec wouldn’t be producing new clear power for the New England grid, simply lowering the quantity of hydropower it sells to different markets. A greater answer could be the set up of rooftop photo voltaic throughout New England, the Natural Resources Council of Maine stated, whereas different Maine residents level to what they are saying is a superior proposal to convey Canadian hydropower into the U.S. by an underground line in Vermont.

Native American tribes in Maine and Canada additionally joined the opposition, protesting the truth that firms stood to “make billions of dollars in profits without consulting or compensating the First Nations on whose ancestral territories its electricity is produced and through which it will be transported.”

In a letter to President Joe Biden, the chief of the Penobscot Nation in Maine, Kirk Francis, stated that “the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers ignored its responsibility — and our requests — to consult with us and gave the NECEC its stamp of approval with blinders on.”

Yet one other level of competition was the truth that many residents harbor deep animosity towards Central Maine Power and Avangrid. A historical past of poor customer support has made Central Maine Power one of many least fashionable utilities within the nation, in line with a research by J.D. Power.

As if all that weren’t sufficient, there was the truth that Avangrid is owned by a Spanish firm, Iberdrola. That, together with Hydro Quebec’s involvement, led to claims that the undertaking amounted to a international takeover of America’s power infrastructure.

Although a various group opposed the plan, it was under no circumstances clear how they may cease a undertaking that was already underway and had the assist of senior state and federal officers. But Howard and her allies quickly discovered well-funded companions that shared their agenda: three power firms that function pure fuel and nuclear vegetation within the space and would possible take a success to their earnings if the NECEC undertaking had been to be accomplished.

The firms — NextEra Energy, Vistra Energy and Calpine — had been quickly funding a marketing campaign to defeat the undertaking, spending a complete of $27 million on the hassle, in line with state filings.

Vistra and Calpine didn’t reply to requests for remark. NextEra stated it was against the NECEC for quite a lot of causes, together with the truth that finishing it will require an costly improve at one among its nuclear energy vegetation in New Hampshire.

By final yr, commercials for and in opposition to the NECEC undertaking had been flooding the Maine media market, unleashing a dizzying collection of claims and counterclaims that blurred the traces between reality and fiction. Battles raged over whether or not the undertaking would lead to total greenhouse fuel emissions, how extreme the environmental results could be and the way a lot Maine would profit. Opponents of the undertaking falsely claimed that hydroelectricity was dirtier than coal, whereas supporters tried to steer voters that passing a retroactive legislation would possibly in the future jeopardize their gun rights.

The debates performed out on the town corridor conferences, TV adverts, junk mail and social media. Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who has a house in Maine, produced a phase bashing the undertaking. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm on Twitter touted the undertaking’s potential to cut back carbon emissions and decrease power costs.

Hoping to win over skeptical Maine residents, Hydro Quebec and Avangrid modified the brand new transmission poles so they may additionally carry high-speed web cables and provided the state a reduced fee on some power.

It didn’t matter. On Election Day, Maine residents permitted a rigorously worded poll measure that, if upheld by the state Supreme Court, will successfully kill the NECEC.

“The grid is going to have to get built out significantly to reach our decarbonization goals,” stated Kathleen Theoharides, the Massachusetts secretary of power and environmental affairs. “What makes me concerned is the idea that a project that was fully permitted by state entities could go to the ballot and get a retroactive decision from the voters based on a lot of misinformation from energy companies that stood to lose money from this new line coming through.”

“This basically sets the precedent that voters can block these really important infrastructure projects,” stated Robin Millican, director of coverage at Breakthrough Energy, a gaggle that’s selling varied efforts to cut back emissions however is just not concerned within the undertaking. “That’s not good for climate overall.”

This article initially appeared in The New York Times.

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