If you’re still trying to make up your mind about Question 1, to be voted on Tuesday, it’s helpful to focus first on what this referendum is not.

It’s not a contest over whether hydroelectric power from Quebec is “clean” or “dirty.”

All sources of electricity have upsides and downsides, but with the climate emergency squarely before us, the distinction must be between those that produce greenhouse gases and those that don’t.

The production of hydropower is in that sense “clean,” but so is nuclear power, now fading from the New England grid, as well as the currently popular options, solar panels and at least off-shore wind.

The bad guys are fossil fuels – not only the fuel oil Mainers once burned almost exclusively to heat their homes, but the natural and propane gas that were supposed to be “bridge” fuels.

It turns out the inevitable methane leaks can make gas almost as bad as oil for the atmosphere in which we all live and breathe. We must purge them from the grid as rapidly as possible; it’s a sobering fact that 54% of New England’s electricity is currently produced by burning natural gas.


Nor is Question 1 a referendum on Central Maine Power, the utility that Mainers now love to hate, after a brief love affair following the 1998 ice storm. That vote comes next year, when dueling referendums concerning conversion to a consumer-owned entity may well be on the ballot.

What this vote must be about is the big picture – the reality that, if we don’t rapidly replace fossil fuels – in electric generation, cars, trucks, planes and heating buildings – the future looks exceedingly ominous.

In that picture, hydroelectricity has an important role.

Let’s be clear: No more major dams will be built in this country, or in Canada. Dam construction has well-documented negative effects on wildlife and ecosystems, plus hotly contested potential effects on greenhouse gases.

We have alternatives in solar and wind that are now price-competitive with all other sources, though they, too, are not trouble-free. And if we’re serious, the best “planet saving” technology is conservation – not using fuel or electricity.

Overall, the Grand Coulee dam is a grand-daddy, while the James Bay project Hydro Quebec built is a relative newcomer; construction started in the 1970s and wound up in 1992. Though no more dams will be built, it only makes sense to use current carbon-free sources.


And there’s no question these dams can produce surplus electricity – as verified by every public regulator – and that routing it through Maine to Massachusetts, which pays all the bills, is a highly plausible way to stabilize the regional grid and cut natural gas.

For all the passionate debate about Maine, New England is a single electric entity, with Maine consuming just 10% of what’s used. Rather than pitting Maine against Massachusetts, or Maine against Canada, we should recognize the assets and liabilities each partner has.

Quebec power travels a long way, and, with the CMP-owned line through Maine, will be mostly tapped. Maine, closer to big New England markets, is the logical source for further expansion of wind and solar – projects that won’t likely be built, except offshore, in densely populated southern New England.

Disappointed suitors for the 1,200-megawatt Massachusetts renewable energy contract – especially NextEra, fighting tooth and nail from the original bids through its unsuccessful Maine court challenge, and now the referendum – will have plenty of opportunity to build a lot more capacity in Maine.

It won’t be simple. If you hate the land-clearing associated with the CMP line to Canada, you won’t be happy to hear that new transmission corridors must be cut for these expansions, and much more land consumed by solar farms.

During Massachusetts’s short-term, small-scale panel boom, from 2012-17, more than a quarter of all land conversion in the state was due to solar farms.


Price is another huge concern. Even with federal support, infrastructure investments on this scale require massive spending, and – since we’re trying to get consumers to switch quickly to electricity from heat pumps, plug-in cars and expanded transit – we can’t have the kilowatt price rise too quickly.

There was something almost touching about former Gov. Paul LePage’s drive to “lower” the price of electricity; it’s not going to happen.

But we have to manage this transition carefully, which means higher gasoline taxes and possibly a carbon tax. For that reason alone, it makes little sense to reject a half-completed project that costs Mainers nothing and will provide significant financial benefits.

Vote as if your future, and that of your state depends on it – because it does.

Douglas Rooks, a Maine editor, commentator and reporter since 1984, is the author of three books. His first, “Statesman: George Mitchell and the Art of the Possible,” is now out in paperback. He welcomes comment at drooks@tds.net

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