BOSTON — A plan to bring Canadian hydropower to Massachusetts to help meet the state's renewable energy needs is in jeopardy following a Maine court ruling that questioned the legality of a planned transmission corridor through the state.
The $1 billion New England Clean Energy Connect project, which is overseen by Central Maine Power Co., seeks to import up to 1,200 megawatts of electricity generated by Hydro-Québec’s dams.
The power would be delivered to Massachusetts along a yet-to-be-built, 145-mile transmission line through western Maine.
But a Maine judge ruled last month that Gov. Janet Mills' administration exceeded its authority in granting a lease to the companies to develop the corridor on state land.
In her ruling, Superior Court Judge Michaela Murphy said there is no evidence that the state conducted a thorough review of the project to determine if it would substantially alter state land, which would require a two-thirds vote by the state Legislature. The ruling is expected to be appealed to Maine's Supreme Judicial Court.
"We are reviewing the Superior Court's decision to determine our next steps on this matter," Thorn Dickinson, president and CEO of NECEC Transmission, said in a statement.
Meanwhile, a referendum set for November will ask Maine voters if they want to ban high-power transmission lines through the air Upper Kennebec region, where the hydropower corridor would be located, and require a two-thirds vote in the state's Legislature to approve any future transmission line projects.
A 2016 law requires Massachusetts utilities to purchase hydropower and other renewables to address climate change and diversify the state’s energy portfolio.
Backers of the project say it will fill green power needs in Massachusetts and reduce regional carbon emissions that scientists say are contributing to a warming planet.
Opponents say the project will carve through scenic swaths of forest in the North Maine Woods and lead to a loss of jobs and recreational tourism. They have described it as an "extension cord" running through the state to Massachusetts that would provide little, if any, benefits to Maine.
The project has cleared numerous regulatory hurdles, including state and federal reviews. President Donald Trump's administration granted permission to allow the transmission line to cross the Canadian border.
Massachusetts is scrambling to import hydropower into the state after its first choice for a project was ditched. A proposed 192-mile transmission line through New Hampshire was rejected by state regulators in 2018 amid concerns it would affect property values and hurt the Granite State's tourism industry.
In Massachusetts, state leaders face ambitious benchmarks to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050.
A sweeping climate change bill signed by Gov. Charlie Baker in March requires the state to meet incremental goals every five years to reach a 50% reduction in emissions by 2030 before meeting the 2050 goal. The plan calls for expanding the use of wind power, solar and hydropower.
Meanwhile, a federal lawsuit filed by Nantucket residents seeks to derail Vineyard Wind’s proposed project 14 miles south of the island, arguing that poses a risk to the endangered North Atlantic right whale.
The $3 billion project, which would be the first large-scale wind farm in federal waters. is expected to create enough electricity to power 400,000 Massachusetts homes.
Kathleen Theoharides, secretary of the state Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, said the state is undeterred by the legal challenges and committed to expanding the use of renewable energy.
"It's illustrative of the challenge of siting new, clean energy infrastructure and building out the transmission grid to support that," she said. "But bringing this hydropower into the state is a key part of getting to net-zero by 2050, so we're following this closely."
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group's newspapers and websites.