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Costs vs. benefits: Will the proposed CMP Corridor help or harm Maine?

Proponents claim customers would save $2.72 a month on their bills.

AUGUSTA, Maine — The proposed CMP Corridor has become one of the most contentious Maine referendum questions in many years. But if the corridor, which is being paid for by Massachusetts, is finally completed, will it benefit Maine?

The new and most controversial section of the corridor is now more than 60% cleared of trees, according to proponents, with work continuing every day. And it's no surprise that the leader of the project said it will make a big difference for Maine.

"The massive reduction in carbon emissions is huge,” NECEC Transmission president Thorn Dickinson said.

“And second, the reason all the fossil fuel, out of state companies, are fighting this, is the massive drop in energy prices in the state and New England," he said.

Dickinson said once in operation, adding the 1,000 MW of Hydro Quebec electricity to the New England grid will drive down electric rates. The Maine Public Utilities Commission stated in its 2019 approval of the project, that the studies show electricity prices would drop between $12 and $44 million per year in Maine. 

The company claims customers would save $2.72 a month on their bills. Opponents, meanwhile, claim the savings would be only nine cents.

The amount of rates reduction is one of many items of a dispute between project supporters and opponents.

Dickinson also points to lower property taxes for all the towns along the corridor. The largest is Lewiston, where the project includes construction of an electric converter facility to convert the power from DC to AV before it enters the New England grid at a major substation nearby. Dickinson says Lewiston will see an $8 million boost in property taxes, but that even communities that only get additional poles are seeing some added revenue.

“We’ve already paid out over $3.5 in pro taxes in construction, and USM says that value will reach $18 million.”

There is also a package of other benefits negotiated by the Mills administration and paid for by CMP and Hydro Quebec. Those include an agreement to let Maine purchase power from Hydro Quebec at a discount rate, through additional capacity of the 1,200 MW line. HQ and the Mills administration say the 500,000 Megawatt-hours will be enough to power 70,000 homes or 10,000 businesses. The state will seek offers from potential buyers of that electricity.

The so-called “stipulation" agreement also calls for $258 million in benefits, including funding for rate relief for CMP customers and low-income residents, added funding for heat pumps and electric vehicle rebates through Efficiency Maine, and funding to expand broadband in Franklin and Somerset counties.

Some of those funds have already started to flow, even before the corridor is built, while others won’t arrive until after the project is complete. Some will be paid over five years, others a longer time frame.

None of those financial incentives, not even the requirement for CMP to provide protection for thousands of acres of wildland, have lessened the opposition to the corridor. 

Liz Caruso, first selectman of the town of Caratunk, is also a whitewater river guide and a leading critic of the corridor. Her prime worry is the environmental damage.

“The economy here is based on recreational tourism, that’s why people come here,” Caruso said, stranding on the shore of the Dead River.

“And this is an area unique to Maine. It represents Maine’s brand of the outdoors, of wild and natural … we have an area heavily scenic. With year-round access for the snowmobiling industry, for hiking, rafting, fishing and white water.”

She said all those activities, and the support they provide the local economy, are threatened by cutting and building the 53-mile corridor.

“It is Maine. It is Maine and there is no reason to damage it when there are no climate benefits to this power," she said.

The question of climate benefits, specifically a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from reduced use of fossil fuels, is a major dispute between supporters and opponents of the project. It remains unresolved after three years of argument and the public permit processes.

Supporters said the new 1,000 MW of HQ hydropower will reduce greenhouse gas emissions for the New England region by 3.5 million metric tons per year. 

The number comes from a study done for the Maine PUC, and it was cited by Gov. Janet Mills in 2019 as her primary reason for supporting the project.

Dickinson said he has no doubt the estimate, provided by PUC consultant London Economics, is dependable.

“I think Mainers should be very comfortable the three and a half year regulatory process concluded this will reduce carbon emissions, and the DEP said the biggest threat to the Maine forest is climate change."

Last year, the president of Hydro Quebec told NEWS CENTER Maine the transmission line would carry new hydropower from existing dams, where there is excess generating capacity not currently being used. 

But project opponents insist that isn’t true, and that their own studies show Hydro Quebec will simply move hydropower it already generates from other users to feed the new line. That, they contend, means no “global” greenhouse gas reduction.

“[They will] just send hydro to Massachusetts through Maine, but they will supply all their other customers with fossil energy or whatever other energy they have,” Caruso said.

"There is no new generation so there is no climate benefit, no reduction in greenhouse gas emissions."

It is just one of many aspects of the project, including the impact on jobs in Maine’s biomass energy plants, they remain disputed despite so much study and debate.

Maine voters will weigh all those questions as they make the decisions for the Question 1 referendum.