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Transmission siting woes are slowing the clean energy transition in New England

Justin Gundlach


  • Massachusetts’ struggle to access Québec’s hydroelectric generation capacity by building a new transmission line highlights a key challenge for clean energy transition nationwide.
  • Examines two proposed lines that would link Massachusetts to the clean electricity resources owned by Hydro Québec.
Transmission siting woes are slowing the clean energy transition in New England
anucha sirivisansuwan via Getty Images

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Large interstate transmission lines are indispensable for cost-effective clean energy transition in the power sector, but existing legal frameworks make it very hard to site them. In particular, federal law leaves transmission siting decisions to the states, creating a channel for opponents to hinder or halt project development. Two proposed lines that would link Massachusetts to the clean electricity resources owned by Hydro Québec have become a case in point. The first—the Northern Pass line—was undone by New Hampshire’s Site Evaluation Committee, whose decision was later upheld by the state’s Supreme Court. In re Appeal of N. Pass Transmission, LLC, 214 A.3d 590 (N.H. 2019). The second—the New England Clean Energy Connect (NECEC)—has been brought to the brink by delay tactics, lawsuits, and a political referendum; a court will decide its fate this summer.

Why build transmission up there?

Massachusetts adopted legislation in 2016 directing the state’s retail electric utilities (electricity distribution companies or EDCs) to secure large volumes of clean electricity capacity, including 1.6 gigawatts from offshore wind and 1.2 gigawatts from Hydro Québec’s reservoirs. Mass. Acts of 2016 ch. 188. This pairing reflected the need for a form of clean power that is “dispatchable”—meaning that it can be turned on and off at will. Adding dispatchable clean generating capacity will ensure that electricity can be delivered reliably and cost-effectively even as wind and solar become the workhorses of the power sector and fossil fuel–fired power plants are decommissioned. But accessing Hydro Québec’s clean, dispatchable generating capacity would require adding transmission capacity—to be paid for by Massachusetts ratepayers—somewhere between Massachusetts and Québec. Massachusetts EDCs quickly requested proposals and received three, which ranged in cost from $950 million to $1.6 billion. Any of the three would “debottleneck” the northern New England grid, allowing large volumes of power to flow between Québec and Massachusetts, and none of them would require construction of a line all the way down to Massachusetts; all that was needed was a line reaching from the Canadian border to southern Vermont, southern New Hampshire, or southern Maine.

If at first you don’t succeed . . .

The Northern Pass project, which would have traversed New Hampshire (map), won the request for proposal in January 2018. But New Hampshire’s Site Evaluation Committee rejected it in February 2018, surprising most stakeholders. It explained that the proposed line would adversely impact natural scenery—and thus tourism—making it unacceptable.

Thereafter, Central Maine Power (a subsidiary of Avangrid, itself the U.S. subsidiary of Iberdrola S.A.) proposed the NECEC line and was granted the contract. Two-thirds of the 147-mile line would run through existing rights-of-way (though some trees would still have to be cleared); the remaining third—about 52 miles—would be new and would require cutting a right-of-way through forestland, a small piece of which is state-owned land (map).

NECEC’s sponsor sought and received regulatory approvals from federal and state agencies and from ISO-New England, the region’s electric grid operator. Construction of the NECEC line began soon after those approvals were granted, even though a legal challenge to Central Maine Power’s lease of the one-mile portion of the right-of-way that crossed state-owned land remained unresolved. Then, in August 2021, a court agreed with the challengers that the state had improperly granted the lease. Construction continued elsewhere as Central Maine Power sought options for securing a new lease for this one-mile portion.

Utilities and NIMBYs unite

Meanwhile, several companies that own nuclear and gas-fired generation assets in the region financed efforts to terminate the project with a ballot measure. Their first attempt was challenged and defeated in court, but their second attempt worked, and Maine voters were asked in the November 2021 election whether to prohibit—prospectively and retroactively—development of any “high-impact” transmission projects in the Upper Kennebec region unless a two-thirds majority of the legislature voted to approve it. Sierra Club and some other green groups supported the campaign to adopt that ballot measure, which was presented as a chance to preserve Maine wilderness for Maine’s residents. (It didn’t help that the only U.S.-based member of the corporate coalition developing the project is Central Maine Power, which is notoriously unpopular with its customers.) The 38 percent of Maine residents who voted split 59 percent in favor and 41 percent against the measure, the governor certified the result days later, and work on the NECEC line was halted. The project’s fate now hangs on whether Maine’s Supreme Court will agree with arguments presented by its developers—who have already spent about half of the $950 million budget on construction—that their rights are “vested” and that the ballot measure violated Maine’s constitutional separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches. The court’s decision is expected this summer.

Whichever way the decision goes, this saga highlights the many ways that opponents of particular transmission projects can use existing law to slow or stop efforts aimed at reducing emissions from the electric grid, even in a region with strong support for clean energy expansion. Without action from Congress, such as the Streamlining Interstate Transmission of Electricity (SITE) Act, to reform to the law that governs transmission siting, opponents of such development will continue to make many states’ clean energy goals harder to achieve.