A controversial $1-billion electric transmission corridor that would channel Quebec hydroelectric power into the New England grid and beyond won a key legal victory May 13.
A federal appeals court lifted a temporary injunction sought by environmental groups and other opponents to halt the start of construction on a 53-mile segment of the line that runs across rural western Maine from the Canadian border to Lewiston, where it would connect with the regional grid.
The remainder of the 145-mile New England Clean Energy Connect project now is being built in an existing corridor owned by its developer, Central Maine Power.
The Boston appeals court rejected the request for an injunction by the Sierra Club, Maine Natural Resources Council and other groups, which are suing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for approving a portion of the project that falls under its purview.
The court ruled project opponents had failed to prove that their case is likely to succeed, the key determinant for a permanent injunction. A federal district court judge in Maine also rejected the project-halt request but will rule on a case against the Corps and U.S. Energy Dept. for failing to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act.
“Now that the injunction on segment one has been lifted, Maine workers are being organized and reporting to their assignments to begin the next phase of building .... the clean energy project,” said Thorn Dickinson, president of New England Clean Energy Connect.
The project is being funded by Massachusetts utilities and their ratepayers. Like other states, Massachusetts is scrambling to meet new goals to cut carbon emissions and convert its grid to clean energy.
There are about 470 workers now on site along the planned transmission corridor, said Dickinson, with the project projected to employ up to 1,600 a year as it ramps up toward completion, set for spring of 2023. Work had started in February in the existing corridor.
Major project contractors are Northern Clearing, Irby, Cianbro and Sargent Electric. Under conditions of the project’s permit, crews will have to start cutting trees in July and August to avoid disrupting newborn bats who live in the forest and are just learning to fly.
Opponents Press Their Case
Opponents vowed to appeal the decision. “We are very disappointed in the appeals court’s ruling on the preliminary injunction, but we will continue to pursue our case,” said Colin Durrant, a spokesperson for Maine Natural Resources Council.
The groups are challenging the Corps' decision to grant permits to fill in wetlands on acreage under its authority and to build a tunnel for the transmission corridor under the Kennebec River. They contend the Corps should have evaluated the environmental impact of the entire 145-mile-long transmission corridor project, not just the pieces directly under its control.
Opponents must show that the Corps not only erred in its narrower environmental review but also that the decision was "arbitrary, capricious and an abuse of discretion,” the appeals court said, providing some support for the agency’s reasons for not undertaking a project-wide review based on a definition of its limited permitting jurisdiction.
The project also faces a referendum question that appears likely to be added to Maine’s statewide November ballot, with election officials signaling that enough signatures have been collected. The question would give the legislature power of approval over such transmission corridors.
The Maine Supreme Judicial Court last year struck down as unconstitutional an earlier version of the referendum that would have been a simple yes or no vote on the project.
Sophie Brochu, president and CEO of Hydro-Québec, which hopes to pump hydropower into the New England grid and beyond, has accused competing oil and natural gas industry interests of helping bankroll efforts to get the anti-transmission corridor referendum on the Maine ballot. But the company also has been challenged by some Maine legislators for its own spending to build public support for the transmission corridor.
Meanwhile, Hydro Quebec eyes added work farther south. A proposal submitted earlier this month would build a transmission line to carry power to New York City. The firm submitted a proposal with partner Transmission Developers Inc. to supply the city with up to 1,250 MW of renewable power, said Brochu, an energy economist who previously ran natural gas distributor Énergir.
The firms plan to develop the Champlain Hudson Power Express, an estimated $2.2-billion transmission line that would link Hydro-Québec hydropower facilities and possibly include upstate renewable generation to New York City, in response to a New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) procurement.
They said in a statement that the transmission line is the only project permitted and able to begin construction in 2021 and start operation by 2025. The transmission line would be all underground or under water, originating in southern Québec, routed under Lake Champlain and the Hudson and Harlem rivers to a substation in Astoria, Queens.
The line will be built using union labor and has committed to hiring from the local workforce, with expanded recruitment and training for disadvantaged communities and for those employed in the fossil-fuel sector.
Another developer that has announced involvement is Rise Light and Power, a Queens, N.Y.-based firm that proposes the Catskills Renewable Connector, which would transport upstate solar and wind power to the city through a transmission line that would enter the Hudson River south of Albany.
Also proposing is Spanish energy developer Avangrid, which owns New York State Electric and Gas and Central Maine Power. It seeks to use state Dept. of Transportation rights of way for its buried line, noting it will not be routed through the river, which has raised environmental group concerns.
NYSERDA has not identified the list of all potential bidders, but the Albany Times-Union said there are 14.