THE UTILITY UNDER CONTRACT with Massachusetts to import Quebec hydro-electricity into New England said on Thursday that it now plans to run the transmission lines under rather than over the Kennebec Gorge in Maine.
The transmission line has stirred opposition in Maine for a variety of reasons, but the prospect of high-voltage transmission wires running 200 feet above a river known for its white water rafting has been a focal point of concern.
“We are changing our proposal to address a key concern of state environmental regulators,” said a statement issued by Doug Herling, president and CEO of Central Maine Power. “This has always been under consideration. We believe this change may also encourage stronger support from those who appreciate the project’s benefits, but want to preserve the commercial and aesthetic value of the river as well.
John Caroll, a spokesman for Central Maine Power, said the company had heard concerns from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, the Maine Land Use Planning Commission, and the US Army Corps of Engineers. A May 7 letter from an official with the Department of Environmental Protection noted the Kennebec has a number of special protections under law and the transmission line would be the only visual impact on a 10-mile stretch of the river.
While other transmission companies seeking to import Quebec hydro-electricity for Massachusetts agreed to bury their lines underground for all or part of their projects in other states, officials with Central Maine Power kept their costs down by running their line above ground for the entire 145-mile distance from Maine’s border with Quebec to Lewiston, where the electricity would feed into the regional power grid. At the Kennebec Gorge, near a town called The Forks, the line would have crossed the river and been marked by safety-marker balls.
As Herling said in his statement, officials with Central Maine Power have always indicated they might end up running the transmission line under the river, but they preferred the above-ground approach to keep costs down. Previous estimates put the cost of running the line under at $37 million, although new estimates are currently being developed. Central Maine Power agreed to a fixed price of $950 million for its share of the project, so any financial concessions it makes to abutters or at the request of regulators cut into its profit margin.
Dylan Voorhees, the clean energy director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, issued a statement calling the decision to run the power line under the Kennebec Gorge a “desperate gambit” to save the project. He said 95 percent of the citizens who spoke at a hearing this week on the project at the Maine Public Utilities Commission opposed it.
“This small change in the project fails to address the project’s many flaws, including its failure to actually reduce climate-disrupting pollution, its hard to renewable energy development in Maine, the damage a new permanent transmission line would cause to fish and wildlife habitat across 53 miles of Maine’s North Woods, and the lack of benefits to Maine people,” he said.
In July, Massachusetts released contracts three local utilities negotiated with Central Maine Power and Hydro-Quebec with a levelized, 20-year price of 5.9 cents a kilowatt hour – 4.8 cents for the hydro-electricity and 1.1 cents for the transmission line. Those contracts are currently under review at the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities. The project is also under review by a host of Maine regulatory agencies.