Massachusetts owes Maine Governor Janet Mills a heartfelt thank you. After just two months in office, Mills has thrown her support behind a plan to run a power-transmission line through western Maine to feed Canadian hydropower into the New England electrical grid.
The so-called New England Clean Energy Connect is a big part of Massachusetts’s plan to increase the clean electricity in our power mix and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Bestowing her blessing is a gutsy move for the new Maine governor, for several reasons. Mills hails from Farmington, a western Maine university community through which the transmission line would run. In her area of the state, the project is far from popular, to put it euphemistically.
Further, the power the transmission lines will carry isn’t for Maine itself, but rather for Massachusetts (and possibly, at some later date, other New England states). But the 145-mile-long corridor, which would run from the Maine-Quebec border south to tie into the New England grid in Lewiston, will require cutting a 150-feet-wide swath through 53 miles of Maine’s north woods; the rest of its length will be through existing power corridors, which will have to be widened.
For her efforts, Mills won herself an attack from anonymously funded TV and social media ads that accuse her of “switching sides” now that Central Maine Power “is offering a backroom deal.” That’s unfair. In a statement in response, Mills spokesman Scott Ogden noted, correctly, that Mills had been skeptical during last year’s campaign because she didn’t think the plan offered enough benefits for Maine, but that the new proposal is very different.
He’s right. Last year, the Maine incentive package was valued at less than $25 million. CMP’s new plan is worth some $258 million over 40 years. The new total includes a $50 million Low-Income Customer Benefits Fund, $140 million in rate relief for Maine businesses, $15 million to help with heat-pump purchases, another $15 million to subsidize electric cars and charging stations, and $10 million for high-speed broadband for communities that host the transmission corridor. That’s a fair deal for Maine. And it comes atop the significant concession CMP offered last fall when it committed to tunnel under, rather than run lines over, the Kennebec River Gorge, a mecca for whitewater rafters in Maine.
But the new benefits have hardly resolved the controversy over the corridor in Maine. The Natural Resources Council of Maine, a pillar of Maine’s environmental establishment, remains opposed, as does an array of other groups.
The state’s Public Utilities Commission will make a decision on the project in the next month or so. Other regulators also still need to bless the project, and since it crosses an international border, it needs approval from the Trump administration, too. Still, having Mills’s support matters. She made the call here. Yes, this project will have some negative environmental effects on Maine, but as Mills said when giving it her approval recently, “[T]his is a project that is, on balance, worth pursuing.”
However, that conclusion was hardly a slam dunk for any politician, let alone one from western Maine. Here, Mills has risen above the NIMBYism that can be almost reflexive on projects like this. Instead of taking the easy way out, she has put some of her political capital on the line to boost the broader clean-energy cause.