A 2018 artist’s rendering of the Nordic Aquafarms facility planned for construction beside Little River in Belfast. Courtesy of Nordic Aquafarms

State regulators have approved a $63.6 million Central Maine Power transmission line upgrade in the Midcoast despite opposition from hundreds of people who say it is being undertaken in part to meet the future energy needs of a planned industrial-size salmon farm in Belfast.

The Maine Public Utilities Commission on Tuesday set aside residents’ concerns about the planned Nordic Aquafarms land-based salmon farm project and rejected an alternate proposal that the area’s growing energy needs could instead be met by planned solar farms and other distributed energy resources in the region.

The upgrade affects the 115-kilovolt, 23-mile “Section 80” transmission line that runs between substations in Windsor and Warren. As a pooled transmission facility, its cost would be shared by the six states under grid operator ISO-New England’s jurisdiction, and Maine’s share of approximately 9 percent would be paid for by the ratepayers statewide in the form of transmission charges.

Generally, 115-kilovolt lines are responsible for distributing power from larger transmission systems and generation facilities to end users throughout the state.

More than 300 Maine residents had spoken out against the upgrade, calling it a ratepayer-funded subsidy to Nordic Aquafarms, which expects to draw 25 to 26 megawatts at full capacity, but CMP and regulators say it is needed because of documented power overloads and other issues on the aging line. 

Nordic Aquafarms plans to build a $500 million salmon farm on 55 acres beside Little River in Belfast and has received all the needed regulatory approval including a U.S. Army Corp of Engineers permit. The company has said the facility would produce tens of millions of pounds of salmon per year.



The upgrade was originally proposed by CMP in 2008 but was deferred by a PUC order in 2010, along with an upgrade to a Portland transmission line, so that alternatives could be explored.

CMP then requested in January 2020 that the rebuild and upgrade be reconsidered because of Nordic Aquafarms’ request to connect to the system. It also requested an expedited review of Section 80, but later withdrew that request before the PUC made a ruling on it.

While the salmon farm’s request created a sense of urgency for the project before its construction was delayed by legal challenges, the rebuild would still be needed without it, said Catharine Hartnett, corporate communications manager for Avangrid, CMP’s parent company.

“Nordic Aquafarms didn’t enter the picture until we had already at least once requested this because of the growth in the area,” Hartnett said. “I don’t believe that we would have been able to supply them with the power that they needed for their project without it, but certainly the need predated them, as well.”

Erik Heim, president of Norway-based Nordic Aquafarms, said he has received a guarantee from CMP  – a “capacity to serve” certification – that it can provide power to meet its needs regardless of whether Section 80 is rebuilt.


In addition, since fish need to be kept alive at all times, the system cannot be totally reliant on a power system that is vulnerable to outages.

The salmon farm plans include a large biofuels and diesel backup generator on site that can generate enough power for the salmon farm to operate in “island mode” off-grid for several days. This also would provide the flexibility to transition to island mode in times of high energy demand in the area to reduce pressure on the grid.

Though 25 to 26 megawatts “sounds like a lot,” Heim said, “when you compare it to the energy use of air freighting for salmon in the U.S. that’s commonly the case for 90 percent of the salmon consumed in the U.S. today, it is a really good equation. You save on your carbon footprint, and you save a lot of energy.”


Heim said he has come to know the “protest culture” in Maine, and that all the opposition to the Section 80 rebuild came from “our opponents recruited through Belfast.”

The now-approved upgrade project had received a torrent of opposition from residents of Belfast and surrounding areas. More than 360 public comments were submitted to the PUC, with many citing the aquaculture project as their main reason for opposing the upgrade.


“I urge you to heed the Maine Office of the Public Advocate and The Efficiency Maine Trust’s advice and deny CMP’s request for a $63 million power grid upgrade needed for a proposed ecologically destructive, undesired (by the vast majority) land-based Atlantic salmon torturing factory,” Belfast resident Kate Harris wrote in her comments. “Especially as their morally bankrupt corporate welfare scheme is based on passing as much of the bill as possible on to we the overburdened peasantry.”

In response to residents’ claims that the salmon farm project would impact ratepayers, Heim said Nordic Aquafarms is paying all costs of connecting to the grid, which he said is in the millions of dollars.

“This project started a long time before we even entered the scene,”  he said. “These are long-term stability issues regarding the grid of New England, not just in Maine, that need to be addressed.”

Michael Lannan, of Northport, was among the commenters opposed to the upgrade. He said the suggestion by CMP and Nordic that the grid needed to be upgraded anyway is “simply not the case with the current improvements in battery storage and the potential for a future industrial user to provide the distributed generation that was requested of Nordic,” and that the power plant it permitted is inadequate.

Many submitted the same comment that approving the transmission line rebuild “would set an unacceptable precedent of the public subsidizing a nonessential, foreign-owned agribusiness to build and operate its speculative land-based aquaculture venture.”

Regulators briefly addressed the opponents’ concerns in their deliberations on Tuesday.


“I want to be clear that the evidence of the record demonstrates that the rebuild of Section 80 would be needed even without the potential future load growth from Nordic Aquafarms,” PUC Chairman Philip Bartlett said.

Bartlett noted that ISO-New England found reliability deficiencies in studies conducted in 2020 and 2021, and it reaffirmed the need for the project at a technical conference in February.

“Moreover, utilities have been prohibited from unfairly discriminating against customers, and the commission generally has no role in deciding whether a particular customer shouldn’t be allowed to interconnect electric systems so long as they can do so safely and reliably,” Bartlett said.


It was the first project state utility regulators have ruled on under Maine’s new “non-wires alternative law” approved in 2019, which requires an analysis of other ways to meet energy needs – using such distributed energy resources as solar, wind, hydro, and generators – when adding or rebuilding transmission lines is proposed. It also requires that the PUC give preference to the alternative if it addresses the need of the proposed transmission line most cost effectively.

The Office of Public Advocate, which coordinates the alternative analysis, argued that the upgrade was unnecessary, and that maintenance and minor upgrades would be sufficient. The non-wires alternative proposed that large generators and approved Midcoast solar farms that are in CMP’s queue for connection to the grid will be sufficient to meet the area’s anticipated needs.


“We’ve come to the conclusion that CMP has not put forward a justification for what is a really a pretty expensive project,” Public Advocate William Harwood said. “A lot of it is to expand the capacity of this line. I’m not convinced that we need that expanded capacity.”

However, the PUC said it found a number of flaws and unanswered questions in the alternative proposal. It found that its cost-benefit analysis left out significant costs, that it did not provide analysis of the impacts to the lower-voltage distribution system, and that its reliance on solar generation would not be adequate for winter peak loads.

Bartlett said that although the public advocate office’s report disputed the need to consider winter peak loads, he believed it was “irresponsible” not to do so. The commissioners concluded that the alternative would not meet the area’s needs reliably, and so they adopted the staff recommendation to approve a rebuild of the transmission line.

“We are disappointed with the ruling,” Susan Chamberlin, senior counsel for the Office of Public Advocate, said in an email Tuesday. “The decision reflects disagreement about the way utilities determine when bigger transmission lines are needed. Contemporary study methods used in the non-wires alternative review allow for greater accuracy and therefore less expensive solutions to meet system reliability needs.”

Chamberlin said her office will consider an appeal once it sees the written decision.

Hartnett, of Avangrid, said construction is expected to begin on Section 80 in early 2023.

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