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AUGUSTA — Maine is joining other New England states to compete for funding proposed in a federal stimulus bill that could upgrade electrical transmission capacity, a prerequisite to significant renewable energy development.
Gov. John Baldacci, along with governors from the five other New England states, participated in a conference call last week to discuss a regional appeal to congressional delegations and President Barack Obama for a portion of funds slated for improvements to the electrical grid proposed in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Bill of 2009.
Last week the U.S. House of Representatives passed a version of the $825 billion stimulus bill that would allocate $32 billion for national grid improvements and $8 billion for renewable energy development. While the U.S. Senate this week began deliberations on an even larger stimulus bill, the New England Governors' Conference hoped to lay the groundwork for a regional-federal partnership that would help fund the billions of dollars needed to upgrade the region's transmission lines.
Line capacity is viewed as a barrier to renewable energy development because larger projects like wind farms often generate more power than local grids can handle. This is of particular concern in northern New England states like Maine, which currently leads New England in installed wind power capacity, but has wind projects located in areas far away from major transmission lines.
Baldacci, chairman of the NEGC, said the region's commitment to renewable energy development made it a candidate for federal funding.
"We need to make sure President Obama and Congress understand the incredible progress that has been made in New England to secure America's energy future," Baldacci said in a press release Monday. "With an active federal partner, we can create thousands of jobs in the Northeast, reduce our dependence on foreign oil and boost our regional economy."
New England isn't the only region vying for electric grid funding. In January, The Western Governors Association sent a similar letter to Obama arguing that the federal money could be used to connect Wyoming's vast coal and natural gas production with markets in several western states.
Similarly, funds diverted to New England states could allow the region to draw power from Canadian provinces, where there's a surplus of hyrdo, wind and nuclear energy. Last summer New England governors and premiers from five provinces met to discuss projects that would increase power sharing, including a Central Maine Power Co. and Maine Public Service Co. proposal for a 345,000-volt line from central and northern Maine that would improve capacity between New Brunswick and the New England power grid. According to David Farmer, Baldacci's deputy chief of staff, federal funding would also ease costs of energy infrastructure projects typically shouldered by electricity rate payers. In addition, Farmer said, massive infrastructure projects would create thousands of jobs.
"We know we need expanded transmission capacity in Maine," Farmer said. "Right now rate payers pick up the cost of infrastructure projects. This would not only help with energy independence, but it helps rate payers and creates jobs."
Farmer said CMP's proposed $1.4 billion Maine Power Reliability Program is an example of the types of projects that could be funded by the federal stimulus proposal.
The CMP project has encountered resistance from residents that could foreshadow additional proposals that must move quickly to meet guidelines in the stimulus bill.
Farmer also acknowledged that there are still fundamental differences between New England governors about which states should absorb most of the costs for grid improvements – the northern states that need the upgrades the most, or the more populous southern states that use the most electricity.
"This is not an end-around those differences of opinion," Farmer said. "But all the governors acknowledged that federal support resolves a lot of their issues."
The NEGC is expected to further discuss its plan during the Feb. 22 National Governors' Association in Washington, D.C.