An ongoing, high-stakes dispute between the owner of the Seabrook Station nuclear power plant in New Hampshire and the New England Clean Energy Connect’s parent company threatens to delay the $1 billion transmission line past a planned 2023 in-service date and hamstring similar clean-energy projects nationally, according to Massachusetts energy officials.

Comments filed Thursday by the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources are contained in filings at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the agency that regulates wholesale, interstate energy projects. They were reported Monday in Utility Dive, an online publication that follows the utility industry.

FERC is trying to referee a multimillion-dollar dispute between Avangrid Inc., the domestic parent company of Central Maine Power and NECEC Transmission LLC, and Florida-based NextEra Energy Resources, which owns the New Hampshire atomic power station. The agency is planning to hold hearings on the issue, although no date has been set.

The federal-level fight represents yet another obstacle for NECEC, roughly a week before Maine voters are set to weigh in on a ballot question aimed at killing the project. Regardless of the outcome, challenges to NECEC’s permits issued by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers promise to inject many months – if not years – of uncertainty into the future of one of the state’s most divisive energy proposals.

The dispute before FERC is over a circuit breaker at the 1,250-megawatt Seabrook nuclear plant that must be upgraded to allow the NECEC line to safely connect to the regional grid.

Avangrid filed a complaint roughly a year ago with FERC saying that NextEra was moving too slowly on the upgrade because cheaper power from the NECEC line would cut into its profits. Seabrook is the largest generator in New England and operates as a “merchant” plant, selling power on the wholesale market. Avangrid said it has agreed to pay for the new circuit breaker.

In a reply brief filed Friday, NextEra said it’s under no obligation to replace or pay for the breaker because it is part of the plant’s generating equipment, not the transmission system. However, the company said it’s willing to do so “under reasonable terms and conditions” and has been negotiating with Avangrid.

But Avangrid disputes that willingness to work together, saying in its filing:

“Despite abundant evidence to the contrary, NextEra continues to say that it is willing to negotiate. But this is a distraction. NextEra does not, and cannot, deny that its legal position, if accepted, would give it a veto right over the NECEC project and, potentially, many, if not most or all, subsequent projects attempting to interconnect in (New England).”

Complicating the matter is that the upgrade can only be done when the plant is offline for refueling. That’s been happening this month and is scheduled again for April 2023. And that’s why Avangrid is pushing FERC to expedite its review, because of the months of lead time it could take to study the circuit breaker issue and come up with an approved plan.

The passage of time is concerning to at least one FERC commissioner, James Danly. In a dissenting opinion on the hearing order, Danly wrote: “It is not clear whether NextEra Seabrook’s claim that it needs 22 months’ advance notice establishes a real, inflexible deadline, or whether it would still have been possible to complete the upgrade during Seabrook’s April 2023 refueling outage had we acted decisively today. But it does appear that, by requesting additional briefing … the commission has now all but guaranteed that the generation breaker upgrades will be delayed for at least a year and a half. And it is entirely possible that the upgrade will not be installed during even the next scheduled refueling outage, if the commission acts with anything like the sense of urgency that it has evinced to date.”

‘LONG-TERM CONSEQUENCES’

NECEC would be a high-voltage, direct-current transmission line with a capacity of 1,200 megawatts, enough energy to run roughly 1 million homes. It would carry energy from Quebec to an alternate-current converter station in Lewiston, where it would enter the New England electric grid. It’s being built largely for the benefit of Massachusetts electric customers, who will pay the $1 billion cost.

The 145-mile route is on land owned or controlled by CMP, except for a one-mile patch through Maine public lands near The Forks. Two-thirds of the route follows existing CMP power line corridors, some of which are being widened up to 75 feet to accommodate another set of poles.

A 53-mile stretch between The Forks and the Quebec border bisects undeveloped commercial forest. The area has been logged for generations but has high-value qualities for wildlife, recreation and biodiversity. Permits require the power corridor in this section to be no more than 54 feet wide. Fewer than 1,000 acres are being cleared in total for the project.

NECEC secured all its state and federal permits before construction began last winter, but permits from the DEP and Army Corps are being contested.

A Maine Superior Court judge in August voided a lease across the one-mile stretch of public lands after ruling that state officials failed to properly conduct a review to decide whether the NECEC line would significantly alter the land. CMP and the state are appealing the ruling, and the DEP held a hearing last week on whether it should suspend the permit. Meanwhile, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court is allowing construction to continue during the appeal, except on the public lands.

Amid uncertainty, voters will weigh in on whether they think the project should continue and whether to expand the role of the Legislature in approving similar power lines in the future. Whatever the outcome, more legal challenges can be expected.

Massachusetts selected NECEC as part of a bidding process and after a first-choice project running through New Hampshire was rejected.

“More than three years following the determination that the Commonwealth needs this transmission line, the project is at risk of not meeting its scheduled in-service date in 2023,” wrote Ben Dobbs, counsel for the Massachusetts energy department.

Dobbs said that while FERC’s determination may turn on a narrow technical question about how the circuit breaker is classified, “the implications for this decision will have long-term consequences for the ability of the Commonwealth, New England, and the rest of the country to achieve emissions reductions necessary to mitigate climate change impacts.”


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