Here's Something: CMP corridor a regrettable poison pill

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Central Maine Power Co.’s proposal for a high-voltage electrical transmission line is tearing Maine in two, both literally and figuratively.

Ironically, it all could have been avoided if we hadn’t removed our own, once-plentiful hydroelectric dams.

Opponents say CMP’s proposed New England Clean Energy Connect project would create a 150-foot-wide, 145-mile-long unsightly scar across the state, starting at the Canadian border in the Allagash region and making its way to Farmington, Jay and Lewiston before connecting into an already-existing corridor into Massachusetts. It would damage eco-tourism and Maine’s overall outdoor reputation, they argue.

Proponents, on the other hand, say Hydro-Quebec, the Canadian utility that would use the new line to sell relatively environmentally friendly – and cheaper – power to Massachusetts, is a solution to the commonwealth’s goal of weaning itself off dirtier sources of energy and toward renewables. Maine should allow the line to further New England’s clean energy goals, they say.

The Maine Public Utilities Commission will decide soon whether to grant CMP a permit to build and manage the $1 billion line, which would be paid for by Massachusetts ratepayers. Its staff has already recommended passage of the proposal.

So, how should the average Mainer feel about CMP’s proposal? Justifiably conflicted, I’d say. It’s a dilemma, especially for environmentalists who desire cleaner sources of energy, such as hydropower, but want to avoid environmental impacts.

Line development would create more than 1,000 jobs. Many of those jobs, however, would end once the line is built, which would take about three years. Some would continue, obviously, since CMP would maintain the line.

Those worried about climate change support the project because they want Massachusetts, which is New England’s largest energy consumer, to use fewer fossil fuel-based sources. Unlike unreliable wind and solar, Hydro-Quebec’s sources of power are relatively clean and reliable, because the company’s vast network includes about 60 power stations along a dozen of Quebec’s rivers and 26 reservoirs.

On the other hand, Maine’s electrical ratepayers would see minuscule financial benefit, while the project’s physical impact would be great.

In addition to the line’s permanent clear-cut, which would require the use of herbicides to manage regrowth, and crossing of water bodies, the power lines’ massive support structures would dominate the landscape for miles around. Any trip to the North Woods would include sights of the new line, discouraging solitude-seeking hikers and paddlers.

With so much at stake, the PUC’s decision is tough, and there has been much feedback from concerned Mainers. But we need to make hard choices. We weigh the pros and cons and make the best decision we can.

Despite the project’s many negatives and Mainers’ love for wilderness, the project has merit because it reduces energy costs and utilizes a reliable, cleaner power source delivered by our close ally, Canada. The project’s physical impacts are regrettable, but Maine’s wilderness is vast and, as we’ve gotten used to other transmission lines, we’ll get used to this one.

What’s been lost in this discussion, however, is how we could have avoided this dilemma. Locally produced hydropower, which Maine once had in abundance before environmentalists led the fight to remove dams to improve fish populations, is preferable to seeking power sources from away. We may avoid reservoirs and dams and fish migration issues, but foreign sources require lengthy and unsightly transmission lines.

Sadly, the short-sighted environmental movement, though well-meaning, is reaping what they’ve sown. And now we must all swallow a poison pill to continue powering our electricity-dependent lives.

John Balentine, a former managing editor for Sun Media Group, lives in Windham.

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