Hydro-Quebec officials say opponents of a transmission line through western Maine are wrong when they say the company’s plan to send hydropower to Massachusetts won’t provide abundant clean energy to New England.

The utility’s officials said Thursday that the company has enough capacity to ensure that the electricity sent south is clean and produced with none of the carbon emissions blamed for global warming.

“We have excess (hydropower) energy in Quebec that we can’t get out,” Serge Abergel, director of public affairs for Hydro-Quebec, told the editorial board of the Portland Press Herald. “We’re ‘spilling’ water. We’re unable to get it to our export markets because we’re limited by our transmission lines.”

Hydro-Quebec signed contracts in June with three Massachusetts utility companies to provide hydropower to help Bay Staters reach their clean energy goals. Central to that plan is the construction of a 145-mile transmission corridor through Maine to deliver that hydropower to Massachusetts markets. Central Maine Power and its parent company, Avangrid, have been tapped to build that line at a cost of nearly $1 billion. The line’s path through some of the most pristine forests of Maine has sparked opposition, while supporters welcome the jobs and taxes the project would deliver.

Abergel said Hydro-Quebec is bringing 13 more hydroelectric facilities on line that have been developed over the past 15 years, and so far has dams on only 75 of the province’s 4,500 rivers. He also said that many of Hydro-Quebec’s reservoirs are near capacity and they act as a sort of natural “battery” to call upon when electricity is needed. That untapped capacity to deliver more hydropower to New England is a major argument in favor of building a transmission line through Maine, he said.

But Dylan Voorhees, clean energy director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, disputed Abergel’s claims. He’s concerned that Hydro-Quebec could engage in a practice called greenwashing, in which a utility buys power from highly polluting generators such as coal plants when that electricity is cheap, then uses it to fulfill their own contracts rather than using their own clean hydropower. That would negate the environmental advantages of transmitting hydropower to Massachusetts.

Voorhees says Hydro-Quebec has “the means and financial incentive” to buy cheap electricity from coal, oil or natural gas electric plants and send it south instead of electricity produced by the company’s dams and hydroelectric plants in Quebec. He also said that Hydro-Quebec has short-term electric supply contracts in New York that could be satisfied with less-clean electricity once the Maine transmission line opens up.

 

WAITING FOR PERMISSION

Abergel was joined in the meeting with the Press Herald by another Hydro-Quebec official and two from Avangrid. Together, they said they worry that the clean power message has gotten lost in the debate over the transmission line.

That debate is entering its final stages. The Maine Public Utilities Commission has to issue a key permit for the project to go forward.

It has already convened hearings, and will hold more in January to give supporters and opponents time to submit final briefs. A decision by the commission on whether to allow the line to be built is expected in March.

Many of the towns and cities along the route of the line have endorsed it, but opposition has stepped up in recent weeks. Opponents have planned demonstrations, and in Somerset County, some residents are urging the county commission to withdraw its support for the line. The Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine has rescinded its endorsement, although it hasn’t decided whether to oppose the project.

OFFICIALS PREDICT LOWER PRICES

Stephen C. Molodetz, a vice president of HQ-US, a subsidiary of Hydro-Quebec, said the transmission line would help Maine electricity customers, even though the line would go directly to Massachusetts. That lack of a Maine tie-in has been another argument that opponents have used against the transmission line plan.

Molodetz said the electricity coming in from Canada would reduce demand on other generators in New England because consumers are served by a regional grid. That should lead to lower prices, he said, particularly during peak demand periods, such as cold snaps in the winter or heat waves in the summer.

“Massachusetts will foot the bill,” Molodetz said of the transmission line, and the more expensive, and often more-polluting, plants won’t need to come online as often because of the supply of Canadian electricity flowing south.

That thought was echoed by John H. Carroll, director of corporate communications for Avangrid, who pointed out that the transmission line would remain even after the contract between Massachusetts and Hydro-Quebec ends in 20 years.

“This is a billion-dollar investment in our state’s infrastructure that Massachusetts is paying for,” he said.

CMP is expected to earn $60 million a year from building the transmission line over the life of the contract. In addition, Maine ratepayers are expected to save $40 million a year because of lower wholesale electric costs in New England, according to CMP estimates. Communities along the route of the transmission line would share in $18 million in property taxes, and nearly 1,700 direct and indirect jobs would be created during construction, the company has said.

Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

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