BOSTON – Regulators responsible for the unorganized territories of Maine on Wednesday gave their approval to the plan to deliver clean power from Hydro-Québec to the Massachusetts and New England grid via the New England Clean Energy Connect transmission project, though an environmental advocacy group in the state cried foul.

The Maine Land Use Planning Commission, by a 5-2 vote, certified that the 145-mile transmission project of Central Maine Power Company, an Avangrid Inc. subsidiary, is an "allowed use" that "complies with all applicable land use standards." Avangrid and CMP have said the $950 million NECEC project will provide an above-ground link between the electrical grids in Quebec and New England to provide cleaner and more reliable hydropower directly to a converter station in Lewiston, Maine, and into the regional power grid.

The decision "ignores the enormous harm that the proposed transmission line would have on the recreational experience, scenic character, and natural resources in Maine's Western Mountains," the Natural Resources Council of Maine.

"The evidence and testimony presented before LUPC made clear that this project would be a bad deal for Maine and cause irreparable damage to the largest contiguous temperate forest in North America. At every single opportunity to share public comments, Maine people showed up in force to voice their concern that the CMP corridor would forever change the North Woods and is incompatible with the existing scenic and recreational uses on which the region depends," NRCM clean energy attorney Sue Ely said. "Mainers have made it clear they believe that with no verifiable reduction of carbon pollution the project is simply not worth the enormous damage that would be done to Maine's forests and wildlife."

Parent company Avangrid said it was pleased with the commission's decision, and said that it was clear that its members "diligently studied the record and project testimony" before casting a vote.

"NECEC is vital to Maine's future both environmentally and economically and we look forward to obtaining other necessary federal, state and municipal approvals and beginning construction on the clean energy corridor later this year," Thorn Dickinson, Avangrid's vice president of business development, said.

The project's cost will be paid by Massachusetts utilities customers and Hydro-Québec, as Bay State utilities and Gov. Charlie Baker's administration chose the project to help Massachusetts meet its statutory requirements to increase its renewable energy supplies.

After Massachusetts energy officials and utility executives dropped the state's first choice of a transmission project to deliver hydropower from Quebec to Massachusetts -- the Northern Pass project through New Hampshire -- due to regulatory opposition in New Hampshire, utility executives decided to negotiate long-term contracts with CMP and the NECEC project under a 2016 energy law.

From a clean energy standpoint, the NECEC would supplement the 800 megawatt Vineyard Wind I project that's planned for 15 miles south of Martha's Vineyard, as well as the Mayflower Wind offshore wind project that's slightly further in the future.

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With its vote Wednesday, Maine's Land Use Planning Commission determined that the transmission project "complies with all applicable sections of the Commission's land use standards" and can move ahead to the next step in its regulatory journey.

NECEC still needs to receive the final approval of Maine's Department of Environmental Protection and others before it can be built and can deliver about 9.45 terawatt-hours per year of clean hydropower to the Bay State for 20 years.

If the project secures the permits it needs from Maine and the federal government, Massachusetts officials have said it could supply about 17 percent of the state's electricity demand at a levelized price of 5.9 cents per kilowatt-hour and could reduce Massachusetts electric bills rates between 2 and 4 percent each year under contracts already approved by the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities.

"Today's ruling from the Planning Commission is encouraging news for both New England ratepayers and the ongoing effort reduce greenhouse gas emissions in our region," Sen. Marc Pacheco, chairman of the Senate Committee on Global Warming and Climate Change, said. "With critical climate policy decisions on the horizon, the Hydro-Quebec initiative's steady and consistent progress ought to reinforce our commitment to securing a clean energy future here in the Commonwealth."

Last year, Maine Gov. Janet Mills announced her support for the project after she reached a "stipulation agreement" with the CMP and NECEC that includes the utility putting $140 million towards rate relief for Maine electricity customers, $50 million to benefit low- and middle-income Maine energy customers, $15 million to install efficient heat pumps, $15 million to encourage electric vehicle adoption and use, and about $15 million towards broadband service in western Maine.

Local and environmental opposition still exists, though. The NRCM said that the settlement Mills struck with CMP "would not address the fundamental flaw in the transmission project: it would harm Maine substantially -- from the state's forests, waters, and wildlife to local clean energy projects and jobs -- without benefitting the climate."

Though NECEC cleared one hurdle Wednesday, it is not out of the woods just yet. In addition to the the Maine Department of Environmental Protection permit that's needed, NECEC also must be certified by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and must obtain a Presidential Permit from the U.S. Department of Energy because its transmission line connects across the border into Canada. And the regional grid operator -- ISO-New England -- also gets a say before the project can get fully underway.

Though parent company Avangrid maintains that the project remains on schedule to become operational in 2022, the project appears to have slipped behind managers' expected timeline for permitting.

At the end of February 2019, an Avangrid spokesman said the company expected the Maine Land Use Planning Commission to make its final ruling by late summer 2019, about four months ago. The spokesman said the necessary approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would come by late July or August 2019 and that the presidential permit process would follow. Construction was to begin in late 2019 or very early 2020.

But in its latest quarterly filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, Avangrid detailed a different timeline for the NECEC project to obtain its needed permits.

The company now expects the Maine Department of Environmental Protection to issue its decision in the first quarter of 2020, with the Corps of Engineers decision expected to come 60 to 90 days later. The ISO-NE decision is also expected in the first quarter. About 60 days after the Corps of Engineers approval, Avangrid is expecting the presidential permit to be approved, though the company says it does not need that in hand to start construction.

Avangrid now expects to start construction on the transmission project during the second quarter of 2020 and energize the lines by the end of 2022.

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