In 1954, 11 New England utilities, including Central Maine Power Co. and the former Bangor Hydro Electric Co., created Yankee Atomic Electric Co. Its mission was to explore “the unknown and unlimited potentialities of the concentrated energy possessed by atomic fuels.” Six years later, the nation’s third nuclear power plant came online, in Rowe, Mass.

Yankee Rowe, as the prototype reactor was called, kicked off two decades of robust power construction. The effort gained urgency in 1965, when a maintenance glitch blacked out every Northeast state except Maine.

In 1971, utilities formed the New England Power Pool to share the cost of building the Big 11 Power Loop. The loop was a network of transmission lines that tied together the 11 utilities with a series of oil, coal and hydro generators, and seven nuclear stations, including Maine Yankee in Wiscasset.

This grand plan literally laid the groundwork for a regional power grid that keeps the lights on today.

Now New England is at another decision point.

The atom’s potential in New England turned out to be limited, for political and economic reasons. Yankee Rowe, Maine Yankee and Connecticut Yankee are gone. Vermont Yankee is closing. Coal is too dirty. The region’s oil fleet is aging and costly to run. Damming more rivers is a public nonstarter.

Where will New England’s power come from over the next 40 years? What will it cost? How will it affect the environment and the changing climate?

A month ago, New England’s six governors stepped up to try to answer these questions, which are critical to the region’s economic health and quality of life.

They announced a plan to expand natural-gas pipeline capacity by nearly 20 percent in three years and build at least one major electric transmission line to bring renewable energy into the region. Utility customers would help pay through electric rates.

This is an ambitious, multi-billion dollar plan, a modern version of the Big 11 Power Loop. But much has changed.

Forty-three years ago, the region’s utilities owned power plants. Project costs approved by state regulators were recovered in rates, creating a financial foundation for long-term planning and investment.

Today, by contrast, Maine utilities don’t own power plants; every state except Vermont has restructured its electric industry. Privately owned generators bid each day into a complex market overseen by ISO New England, an independent bureaucracy created to operate the grid and plan for its reliability.

Into this new world stride elected officials. Unlike the Big 11 Power Loop planners, the governors and the state legislators with whom they must align their policy goals are short-timers. So are their energy advisers and state utility commissioners, who will do the heavy lifting behind the scenes through an entity that almost no one has heard of – the New England States Committee on Electricity.

Underlying their work is a key premise: Ratepayer investment will be recovered through savings on energy bills, because these strategic projects will increase supplies of lower-cost power.

That sounds reassuring. But predicting long-term energy trends is tough, as experience has shown.

Congress responded to the first “energy crisis” and the rising price of foreign oil by passing the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act of 1978. The idea was to encourage development of domestic, renewable power plants by making utilities buy the output at an “avoided” cost, what they otherwise would have paid for replacement power.

States enacted their own versions of the law. In Maine, the avoided cost was pegged to oil, which would soon hit $100 a barrel, some experts said. They were right, but 20 years off on their timing.

Oil prices collapsed in the late 1990s. Unfortunately, utilities had signed very expensive, long-term contracts with hydro dams, biomass burners, waste-to-energy plants and other non-utility generators, which became known by the derisive acronym NUG. Buying out and paying down the NUG contracts cost CMP and Bangor Hydro customers multi-millions over the years.

The NUG debacle helped grease the skids for restructuring in Maine in 2000. Let the market decide, supporters said. Let investors take the risks, not ratepayers.

And the market did decide. It picked natural gas.

QUESTIONS ABOUT NATURAL GAS

Gas was a no-brainer. It burns much cleaner than oil or coal. A couple of new natural gas pipelines built through Maine from offshore Nova Scotia and western Canada brought in a new supply.

Gas plants were easy to build in most any industrial park near a pipeline. By 2000, New England was in the midst of a gas-fired gold rush.

Today, natural gas fuels more than half of all power generation. More pipeline capacity would likely increase the share, fed by a plentiful, new source of shale gas on our southern doorstep.

Is that too much gas? Influential environmental groups, including the Conservation Law Foundation and the Sierra Club, think it is. These groups supported the initial switch from oil to gas. As President Obama did last month in his State of the Union address, they called gas a “bridge fuel” to a cleaner energy future.

Now is the time to cross that bridge in New England, environmental groups say. They insist that the governors must use this historic decision point to move away from all fossil fuels, not become more dependent on them, if we are to have any hope of slowing climate change.

They envision a New England that maximizes energy efficiency, that’s strategically powered by wind turbines on land and at sea, by solar panels that shave the edge off peak electric demand on hot, summer days. Look for them to argue this case in state legislatures, in public forums and maybe in court.

On the flip side, some business interests argue that the governors’ plan doesn’t push hard enough on the gas pedal. The lack of pipeline capacity is pinching supply to power plants, homes and factories and making New England’s gas the most expensive in the country. That fact played out in the news this winter, when some paper mills curtailed operations because of high energy prices.

TOUGH CHOICES FOR GOVERNORS

So the governors face a dilemma. They can double down on climate change and its long-term ills, such as sea-level rise. Or they can turn up the gas now to save what’s left of New England’s manufacturing base.

Conflict is brewing, too, over the plan for new transmission lines to bring large-scale hydroelectricity from Canada.

The push here is coming from the governors of Massachusetts and Connecticut, who are serious about climate change and its potential impact. Conservation groups aren’t keen on flooding Canada’s boreal forests, but their full wrath is reserved for stringing high-voltage lines through the North Woods.

Exhibit A is Northern Pass, the $1.4 billion transmission line that would transmit enough power from Hydro-Quebec to serve 1.2 million homes in southern New England. It seemed like a slam-dunk when it was first announced in 2009, but plans to place towers in New Hampshire’s White Mountains have led to a pitched battle.

Pressure is building now, from both New Hampshire’s governor and lawmakers, to place much of the line underground, a more costly option.

Maine, by contrast, has a forward-looking energy corridor law that directs most lines underground along highway right-of-ways and spells out specific economic benefits from the state. The four-year old law is untested so far, but it could put Maine in a sweet spot to host proposed power lines to Boston from the Canadian Maritimes.

This energy could help blunt climate change. But it won’t be sold at a discount in New England, as some politicians, including Gov. Paul LePage, speculate.

Hydro-Quebec exports power at market rates. It has done so for decades. Nalcor Energy, the Newfoundland and Labrador utility, recently signed a deal to sell power at market prices to Nova Scotia. Is there any reason to believe they’d sell it cheaper to New England?

This reality highlights a difference between power planning in the Big 11 Power Loop days, versus 2014. Utility planners, for all their failings, had a sharper, longer focus. Politicians look out on a more complicated horizon.

The experience in Germany can be instructive. Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant disaster led Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition government to phase out atomic power and push the rapid expansion of solar and wind. In just a few years, cloudy, cold Germany became a global leader in solar energy.

The transformation is being highlighted this winter in the Maine Legislature by advocates of new laws to increase solar’s contribution to Maine’s energy mix. Lost in the translation is how the subsidies to encourage solar and wind in Germany have increased power prices so much that they’re now being cut back, and that climate-killing coal plants are being fired up to backstop renewables.

This isn’t to suggest New England will replicate the German experiment. It’s just to stress how hard it is, despite the best intentions, for any government to strike the right balance at the right time between price, power supply and climate impact. For the six New England states, that time is now.

Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at:

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