March 3, 2010

Bill would establish strict 'energy corridors'

BY ETHAN WILENSKY-LANFORD Staff Writer

The Utilities and Energy Committee heard qualified support Tuesday for a bill that would designate several areas of Maine as energy corridors and set rules for how the state could consider making additional corridors.

The bill, L.D. 1786, sponsored by Sen. Barry Hobbins, D-Saco, who is co-chairman of the committee, reflects the majority findings of a report from the Commission to Study Energy Infrastructure, which met last fall.

The bill and the majority report would designate so-called "statutory corridors" for energy transmission: the I-95 corridor (including the Maine Turnpike), the I-295 corridor and a corridor from Searsport to the former Loring Air Force Base in Limestone.

The bill would establish a review panel that would only approve energy infrastructure projects that "enhance opportunities for energy generation within the state," and "significantly and measurably reduce electric rates or relevant energy costs for residents and businesses within the state."

Companies could also propose energy corridors in other areas, called "petitioned corridors."

Much of the discussion related to how Maine might remain competitive as an energy supplier in a market that will likely soon include a larger Hydro-Quebec.

If approved by regulators this spring, the Canadian power company would purchase the production capacity of the smaller New Brunswick Power.

Rep. Ken Fletcher, R-Winslow, noted that Hydro-Quebec will soon have a wind power generation capacity of 4,000 megawatts, dwarfing Maine's goal of 2,000 megawatts production by 2015. Because Hydro-Quebec supplies peak energy to heat homes in the winter, the company has a wealth of surplus electricity the company would like to transmit to Boston and points south during that region's summertime peak demand.

"How are we going to make sure that we aren't left on the side of the road watching that energy pass away?" Fletcher asked Public Utilities Commissioner Jack Cashman.

Cashman said that Hydro-Quebec could go around Maine to reach this lucrative Southern New England market, as the company is doing in negotiations to build a transmission line through New Hampshire.

"They don't have to go through us," he said. "If Hydro-Quebec or anybody else wants to use this corridor to run through Maine, they are going to have to meet the standards of this bill."

Several people, including many lawmakers, testified that it was important for the proposed oversight rules to apply to projects on private lands as well as along public corridors.

"Before we allow projects that would cut a swath across our state and some of its beautiful lands, we must make sure that those projects are necessary for our state's prosperity and carry out our energy vision as we look to the future," said Rep. Sharon Treat, D-Hallowell, who served on the commission.

A Central Maine Power representative, David Allen, asked the committee to continue to allow it to use short sections of statutory corridors to improve reliability, even though this infrastructure developments are not meant to lower the cost of electricity for Maine ratepayers.

The company introduced an amendment to the bill that would allow it and other transmission and distribution companies to be exempted from the bill's requirements.

Chris O'Neil, who represents a group opposed to onshore wind power development in Maine called Friends of Maine's Mountains, told the committee that he was concerned the bill would make it more difficult to access cheap Canadian power that would benefit Maine.

"What's the threat?" he said. "They're not Iraq."

Ethan Wilensky-Lanford - 620-7016

ewlanford@mainetoday.com

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