Maine Approves $63M CMP Power Line Upgrade Over Resident Objections

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A 2018 artist’s rendering of the Nordic Aquafarms facility due to be built next to Belfast’s Little River. Courtesy of Nordic Aquatic Farms

State regulators have approved a $63.6 million Central Maine Power transmission line upgrade in the Midcoast despite protests that it is being undertaken in part to meet a farm’s future power needs planned industrial-scale salmon farm in Belfast.

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

The upgrade affects the 115-kilovolt, 23-mile “Section 80” transmission line that connects Windsor and Warren substations. As a transit facility, its the cost would be shared by the six states under the jurisdiction of the ISO-New England grid operator, and Maine’s share of approximately 9% would be paid for by taxpayers in the form of transportation costs.

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

More than 300 Maine residents have spoken out against the upgrade, calling it a taxpayer-funded subsidy for Nordic Aquafarms, which plans to draw 25 to 26 megawatts at full capacity, but CMP and regulators say it’s necessary because of documented power overloads and other problems on the aging line.

Nordic Aquafarms plans to build a $500 million salmon farm on 55 acres next to Little River in Belfast and has received all necessary regulatory approvals, including a permit from the US Army Corp of Engineers. The company said the facility would produce tens of millions of pounds of salmon annually.

APPLICATION IS BASED ON 2008

The upgrade was originally proposed by CMP in 2008, but was postponed 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 due to Nordic Aquafarms’ request to log into the system. He also requested an expedited Section 80 review, but later withdrew that request before the PUC issued a decision on it.

Although salmon farming demand created a sense of urgency for the project before its construction was delayed by legal challenges, reconstruction would still be necessary without it, said Catherine Hartnett, corporate communications manager for Avangrid. , the parent company of CMP.

“Nordic Aquafarms didn’t come on the scene until we had already requested it at least once due to growth in the area,” Hartnett said. “I don’t believe we would have been able to provide them with the energy they needed for their project without it, but the need certainly preceded them as well.”

Erik Heim, president of Norway-based Nordic Aquafarms, said he received a guarantee from the CMP – a “fitness to serve” certification – that he can supply power to meet his needs, whether Section 80 is rebuilt or not.

Additionally, since the fish must be kept alive at all times, the system cannot be totally dependent on an electrical system that is vulnerable to failure.

The plans for the salmon farm include a large on-site biofuel and diesel backup generator that can generate enough power to keep the salmon farm operating in off-grid “island mode” for several days. It would also provide the flexibility to switch to island mode during times of high energy demand in the region to reduce the strain on the grid.

Although 25 to 26 megawatts “seems like a lot,” Heim said, “when you compare it to the energy use of air freight for salmon in the United States, which is typically the case for 90 percent of salmon consumed in the United States. USA today is a very good equation, you save on your carbon footprint and you save a lot of energy.

TORREN OF OPPOSITION

Heim said he got to know the “protest culture” in Maine and that all opposition to rebuilding Section 80 came from “our adversaries 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 the primary reason for opposing the upgrade.

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

In response to claims from residents that the salmon farming project will impact taxpayers, Heim said Nordic is paying all grid connection costs, which he says run into the millions of dollars.

“This project started long before we got on the scene,” he said. “These are long-term stability issues around the New England grid, not just Maine, that need to be addressed.”

Michael Lannan of Northport was among the commentators opposed to the upgrade. He said CMP and Nordic’s suggestion that the grid needed to be upgraded anyway is “simply not the case with current battery storage improvements and the potential for a future industrial user to supply the distributed generation requested from Nordic”, and that the plant it has authorized is inadequate.

Many submitted the same comment that approving the reconstruction of the transmission line “would set an unacceptable precedent for the public subsidizing non-essential foreign-owned agribusiness to build and operate its speculative land-based aquaculture business.” .

Regulators briefly addressed opponents’ concerns during their deliberations on Tuesday.

“I want to be clear that the evidence on file demonstrates that Section 80 reconstruction would be necessary even without the potential future load growth of Nordic Aquafarms,” ​​said PUC Chairman Philip Bartlett.

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

“Furthermore, utilities have been prohibited from unfairly discriminating against customers, and the commission generally has no role in deciding whether a particular customer should not be allowed to interconnect electrical systems as long as they can do so from safe and reliable manner,” Bartlett said.

FIRST DECISION UNDER THE NEW LAW

It was the first project state utility regulators have ruled on under Maine’s new “Wireless Alternative Law” approved in 2019, which requires analysis of alternative ways to meet energy needs. – using distributed energy resources such as solar, wind, hydro and generators – when it is proposed to add or rebuild transmission lines. It also requires the PUC to give preference to the alternative if it meets the need for the proposed transmission line in the most cost effective manner.

The Office of Public Advocate, which is coordinating the alternative analysis, argued that the upgrade was not necessary and that maintenance and minor upgrades would be sufficient. The wireless alternative proposed that the large generators and approved Midcoast solar farms that are in CMP’s queue for grid connection are sufficient to meet the anticipated needs of the region.

“We have come to the conclusion that CMP has failed to provide a rationale for what is really quite an expensive project,” said public attorney William Harwood. “It’s largely about increasing the capacity of this line. I am not convinced that we need this increased 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 omitted important costs, that it did not provide an analysis of the impacts on the low-voltage distribution system, and that its reliance on solar generation would not be adequate for winter peak loads.

Bartlett said that although the Public Defender’s Office report disputed the need to account for winter peak loads, he believed it was “irresponsible” not to. The commissioners concluded that the alternative would not reliably meet the needs of the area, and so they adopted the staff recommendation to approve the reconstruction of the transmission line.

“We are disappointed with the decision,” Susan Chamberlin, senior counsel for the Office of the Public Advocate, said Tuesday. “The decision reflects disagreement over how utilities determine when larger transmission lines are needed. Contemporary survey methods used in the examination of wireless alternatives allow for greater accuracy and therefore less expensive solutions to meet system reliability needs.

Chamberlin said his office will consider an appeal once he sees the written decision.

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


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