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Mass. Gov. Baker on Maine hydroelectric corridor: 'I don't see it as dead'

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, at Boston Children's Hospital, said his team is still working on next steps to meet the state's clean energy goals after Maine voters displayed opposition to an electric transmission project.
Chris Lisinski
State House News Service
Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, at Boston Children's Hospital, said his team is still working on next steps to meet the state's clean energy goals after Maine voters displayed opposition to an electric transmission project.

Two days after Maine voters dealt a blow to the future of transmission lines that could deliver nearly a fifth of the electricity demand in Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker said he does not believe the project is outright doomed, but signaled his team is still determining how to proceed.

Nearly 60% of Maine voters supported a ballot question in Tuesday's election asking if they wanted to prohibit construction of high-impact electric transmission lines in the Upper Kennebec Region and require legislative approval for similar projects.

The question was effectively a referendum on the 145-mile New England Clean Energy Connect project, which would link hydroelectric power generated in Quebec to the regional grid. For years, the Baker administration has viewed the project — already under construction with more than $400 million spent by utility company Central Maine Power and its parent Avangrid — as a key component in meeting the 2016 Massachusetts clean energy law.

Baker on Thursday said he has been talking with both officials in his administration and Avangrid about "what the next move here might be" in the wake of Tuesday's election. But asked if he believes the NECEC project is effectively dead, Baker replied, "No, I don't see it as dead."

Even as Massachusetts moves to embrace new forms of clean energy, particularly in the offshore wind industry poised for rapid growth along the South Coast, improving the state's ability to access and transmit generated power will be vital, Baker said.

"I think the decision in Maine to some extent speaks to a much larger issue, which I've talked about before, with regard to the work that is being done and will need to be done to electrify those parts of our economy that are currently driven by fossil fuels, and that is transmission capacity and the strength and power of the grid," Baker said at an unrelated press conference.

He added that the Bay State is not alone grappling with serious questions about expanding transmission capacity, noting that U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm last week urged Maine voters to oppose the ballot question and rally behind the power project.

"Whether you're talking about wind or you're talking about hydro or you're talking about basically any other form of renewable energy, transmission has got to be a big part of the discussion because we're talking about, literally in some cases, doubling or tripling the amount of energy and electricity that's going to need to be available," Baker said.

A law Baker signed in 2016 directs Massachusetts utilities to procure about 1,200 megawatts of hydroelectric power as part of an effort to transition away from coal and nuclear generation. Bay State officials have said the NECEC hydro project could supply about 17% of the state's electricity demand, all from a renewable source generated in Quebec.

While Baker said talks about next steps are ongoing, neither he nor other administration officials have offered details about contingency plans for achieving the hydroelectric power goals set under the clean energy law.

During a briefing to the Council of State Governments U.S. State Legislative Climate Alliance on Wednesday afternoon, Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Kathleen Theoharides said the Baker administration planned to spend the next several days working to understand its options in the wake of the Maine vote, according to a participant.

She did not directly answer when asked if the administration has a contingency plan.

Quebec Premier François Legault, whose provincial government controls the Hydro-Quebec public utility, told reporters Wednesday that his administration "knew that the referendum would be tight" in Maine and that Quebec "indeed has a Plan B," according to a report from La Presse.

"There are different routes you can take to get to Massachusetts and different routes as well. We know that the American federal government supports the project, but unfortunately I cannot go further this morning," he said while attending international climate talks in Scotland, the newspaper reported.

The project's future may also be determined in court, where its backers could argue that they complied with Maine law as written after receiving necessary permits and are already well underway on construction.

More than 75% of the corridor has already been cleared and about 100 lines have been installed so far, Avangrid CEO Dennis Arriola said on Oct. 27.

"We believe this referendum, funded by fossil fuel interests, is unconstitutional," Jon Breed, executive director of the Avangrid-backed Clean Energy Matters, said on Wednesday, hinting at a lawsuit that was filed later Wednesday. "With over 400 Maine jobs and our ability to meet our climate goals on the line, this fight will continue."

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