Skip to main content

Signs supporting a ballot initiative to stop the New England Clean Energy Connect project stand outside a home in Moscow, Maine, on Oct. 7.BRIAN SNYDER/Reuters

In a blow to Hydro-Québec’s ambitions to become a key supplier of clean energy in the U.S. Northeast, voters in Maine have rejected a US$950-million power transmission line currently under construction that would carry Quebec hydroelectricity to New England.

Opponents of the project, called New England Clean Energy Connect, or NECEC, gathered enough signatures to hold a referendum on whether to allow a 233-kilometre, high-voltage conduit from the Canadian border through western Maine to its ultimate destination in Massachusetts. A majority of those who cast a ballot voted Tuesday in favour of banning the line’s construction as part of a wider citizens’ initiative, which allows residents of the state to introduce new legislation.

Hydro-Québec confirmed that it had lost the vote, adding that a little over a third of Maine voters actually cast a ballot. It vowed to push ahead with the corridor and affirm its legal rights in court together with its project partner Avangrid Inc. The partners are questioning whether the referendum result can supersede the regulatory process the project has already been through.

“This will probably delay the project and it will surely cost us more money for lawyers but I think this line will get built,” Hydro-Québec chief executive officer Sophie Brochu told The Globe and Mail. The power line is a regional collaborative effort to fight climate change and it should move forward, she said.

Avangrid said late Wednesday that it filed a lawsuit in Maine Superior Court challenging the citizens’ initiative and vowed to earn the support of those who voted against the power line plan.

“[The initiative] violates fundamental legal principles, but you don’t have to be a lawyer to see that it’s also fundamentally unfair,” Thorn Dickinson, president of Avangrid subsidiary NECEC Transmission, said in a statement.

“This referendum effectively tears up valid contracts, ignores the judicial and executive branches, and goes back in time to retroactively change the rules to stop a project just because it threatens the financial interests of fossil fuel generators.”

Hydro-Québec has been trying for years to find a path to get its power to Massachusetts after the state awarded the government-owned corporation a contract in 2018 to supply a large quantity – 9.45 terawatt hours – of electricity. For the state, the contract is a key part of its effort to curb greenhouse gas emissions. For Hydro, it is a 20-year supply agreement worth an estimated $10-billion in revenue, one of its biggest deals in history.

A previous plan by Hydro-Québec to carry power to Massachusetts through New Hampshire was rejected by the latter state’s regulators. The difficulties in Maine show that acquiring rights-of-way and building energy infrastructure in the United States continues to be a difficult prospect for Canadian energy producers, whether they’re selling crude oil or hydro power.

“The green credentials of large infrastructure projects are insufficient in and of themselves to insulate a project from stiff local resistance,” said Erik Richer La Flèche, an energy and infrastructure specialist at law firm Stikeman Elliott in Montreal. “Only by structuring these projects in a manner that adequately addresses the concerns of all affected communities can these projects move forward.”

There are three main reasons the power line failed to garner support, said Mr. La Flèche: rural and blue-collar alienation in northern Maine; doubts across the state about the promises of improvement from Avangrid’s Central Maine Power, or CMP, the project’s main sponsor; and the project primarily benefiting another state, namely Massachusetts.

What happens next is not immediately clear. Construction on the line is already under way with 600 workers involved in Maine. Three-quarters of trees have already been removed to make way for the transmission line, which mostly follows existing utility pathways.

“It’s almost guaranteed that the Maine Supreme [Judicial] Court is going to have to weigh in on that challenge,” said Mark Brewer, a professor of political science at the University of Maine. “So how binding this one is is yet to be determined.”

Ms. Brochu is trying to boost Quebec electricity exports to nearby U.S. states by striking multiyear supply agreements she said have wider environmental benefits. In a separate deal, the provincially owned corporation was chosen in September for a multibillion-dollar contract to deliver renewable power into the heart of New York City.

The CEO faces significant resistance, however, as Hydro-Québec becomes the target of established U.S. oil and gas players and other opponents. The normally reflective and mild-mannered executive has taken an increasingly aggressive position against what she has called misguided attacks against the utility by fossil fuel producers.

She is particularly frustrated in the Maine case because she says the project enjoys widespread support among political and business leaders and has obtained all the required permits over two years.

Speaking to reporters in Scotland where he is attending the United Nations climate conference, Quebec Premier François Legault expressed confidence Wednesday that the export project will survive. He said the province has a Plan B and that “different scenarios” existed allowing the plan to go ahead, declining to elaborate.

Opponents said construction on the transmission line should be halted.

Natural Resources Council of Maine, a leading environmental advocacy organization in the state, said: “Maine residents have voted decisively to terminate the [corridor project], which means the time has come for Central Maine Power to respect the will of the Maine people by stopping this project immediately.”

The council has warned that the controversial power lines “would cut a permanent gash through Maine’s western mountains, forever harming a globally significant region that supports a vibrant outdoor recreation economy.” Other environmental groups have articulated support for the project on the grounds that it will achieve a higher good, that of replacing fossil fuels such as natural gas with cleaner energy.

Massachusetts is paying for NECEC as it seeks to decarbonize its economy and shift toward sources of power that are less emissions-intensive. Some of the electricity will also be earmarked for Maine and the state is also set to receive a benefits package as part of the deal worth about US$250-million.

The battle between project supporters and opponents has been intense in Maine and the feuding energy companies have spent close to US$100-million collectively to try to capture public support, trade publication Utility Dive reported. Both sides have flooded the airwaves with ads that often contradict each other and accused their opponents of lying about the corridor’s true impact, according to the Bangor Daily News.

Hydro-Québec has blasted rival energy companies, and Houston-based natural gas electricity producer Calpine Corp. in particular, for relentlessly trying to block the project and hijacking what it acknowledges are legitimate concerns by local residents at the grassroots level.

Calpine owns a gas plant in Westbrook, Me., that supplies the region in addition to generation facilities in several other states. The company, together with two other power producers serving Maine, NextEra Energy and Vistra Corp., stand to lose as much as US$1.8-billion over 15 years as the project cuts New England’s reliance on electricity generated using fossil fuels, according to one estimate.

Your time is valuable. Have the Top Business Headlines newsletter conveniently delivered to your inbox in the morning or evening. Sign up today.