Provincial utility Hydro-Quebec has stopped construction on the Canadian section of a transmission corridor that would hook up to the now-stalled $1 billion New England Clean Energy Connect project in Maine.

The utility had started work on the 60-mile Appalaches-Maine interconnection from a substation near Thetford Mines on a route headed to the Quebec-Maine border at Beattie Township. It planned to string a 320-kilovolt line and build an AC-to-DC converter station, at a total cost of $475 million. The project was scheduled for completion in 2023.

Hydro-Quebec said it has finished 70 percent of the right-of-way clearing and access roads. On Jan. 19, it notified the Canada Energy Regulator, the federal agency that permits cross-border energy ventures, that construction was being suspended.

“Hydro-Quebec hopes to be able to resume construction work on the interconnection line project for Appalaches-Maine and remains convinced of the value, merits and importance of the project,” the utility told the Energy Regulator in a letter. “We and our partner maintain that the referendum is unconstitutional and are committed to the legal challenge to the referendum initiative. We are convinced that this project remains essential to New England’s decarbonization efforts.”

The utility also said it would secure the construction site over the next few weeks.

“Environmental monitoring of the premises will also be deployed throughout the suspension period,” it added.

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NECEC PROJECT ON HOLD

News of the pause was reported Tuesday in La Presse, a French-language digital newspaper based in Montreal.

Hydro-Quebec’s action means that virtually all work to forge a new energy connection between the province and New England is on hold. The company said it was continuing with some engineering work as well as construction at the converter station.

Responding to questions from the Portland Press Herald on Wednesday, a Hydro-Quebec spokeswoman said the company had slowed work in mid-December to reflect the pause in Maine triggered by a Superior Court ruling.

“Hydro-Quebec believes that its partner in Maine will succeed in its legal challenge of the law that put at risk the completion of the NECEC project,” Caroline Des Rosiers said in a statement. “Work will resume as soon as possible after the adjudication on the issues raised in the case.”

In an apparent reference to the need to call up oil-fired power plants in New England to supplement natural gas generation this month, Des Rosiers noted that NECEC could provide the region with “a clean, reliable and cost-competitive energy resource, every hour of the year, including during periods of high electricity consumption, especially relevant with the cold temperatures we are seeing this winter.”

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In Maine, NECEC voluntarily stopped work on Nov. 19 at the urging of Gov. Janet Mills following the Nov. 2 ballot initiative in which voters overwhelmingly endorsed a law aimed at killing the project. On Nov. 23, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection ruled that the new law created a change of condition in NECEC’s permit and ordered the project shut down until court challenges are resolved. Per the DEP’s order, crews stabilized the corridor and related construction sites in December to limit erosion over the winter.

NECEC began clearing land last January. It has spent more than $450 million and cleared 124 miles of the 145-mile corridor and erected roughly 120 steel towers. More than 600 workers were engaged with the project when construction was shut down.

NECEC and Avangrid, the parent company of Central Maine Power, are now appealing the constitutionality of the new law and are facing other legal challenges in court and before regulatory agencies.

OTHER ROUTES POSSIBLE

Completion of the power line is a top priority for Hydro-Quebec, which calls itself North America’s leading provider of clean energy. The utility is seeking to increase its export capacity of hydroelectric power to New England and has estimated potential earnings of roughly $10 billion over a 20-year contract with Massachusetts power companies.

Hydro-Quebec also has financially supported NECEC’s struggle in Maine. A subsidiary called H.Q. Energy Services contributed more than $20 million to fight last November’s ballot initiative. The subsidiary also recently filed a “friend of the court” brief in a challenge at the Maine Supreme Judicial Court regarding NECEC’s contested lease across public lands.

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Last November, Quebec Premier Francois Legault told Canadian media that he was still confident the Massachusetts contracts would go forward, possibly via a different route. Legault has been pushing a plan to make Quebec the “battery of North America,” with abundant hydroelectric resources that could be used to balance intermittent renewable generation in the Northeast, namely solar and wind.

Hydro-Quebec didn’t provide federal regulators with an estimate of when work might resume. It said it would keep the energy agency informed as things evolve.

The Canadian utility’s action appears to be a recognition of the obstacles faced by its American partner, said Tom Saviello, a lead organizer of the ballot initiative campaign.

“This decision is significant as I believe H.Q. realizes they could be building a transmission line to nowhere,” Saviello said. “They must realize the corridor opposition has two very strong cases (public lands and the referendum constitutionality) in front of the Maine Supreme (Judicial) Court.”

If the NECEC/Appalaches-Maine venture ultimately fails, it will be Hydro-Quebec’s second unsuccessful attempt to find a new export route into the region. In 2019, it had to abandon another project known as Northern Pass after an energy siting board in New Hampshire rejected the proposal.

But it’s also possible that power from Hydro-Quebec could reach Massachusetts via an alternative route through Vermont. In addition, the utility recently signed a $20 billion deal to send power via an underground and underwater line to New York City. The proposal is called the Champlain Hudson Power Express.


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