How today’s elections may remake renewables, clean energy


Voters go to the polls today in three states that could play major roles in determining the future of U.S. clean energy, renewable power and electric vehicles.

The fate of New England’s largest low-carbon energy proposal, a $1 billion transmission line, is on the ballot in Maine, for example. Voters in that state could determine whether it ultimately gets built and change how future large transmission projects are approved.

In Virginia, where the race for governor between former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Republican Glenn Youngkin is too close to call, the next governor will come into office as the state embarks on an ambitious pledge to decarbonize its power sector by 2050 and as it launches an aggressive bid to become a mid-Atlantic hub for offshore wind.

In New Jersey, Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy is seeking reelection to pursue a similar agenda of renewable construction, although there may be hard choices ahead on clean energy if he wins a second term.

With President Biden’s clean energy and climate agenda facing an uncertain fate in Congress, the administration is watching the outcome of the state races closely. Both Biden and his Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm last week campaigned for McAuliffe, for example. Granholm also tweeted in support of the Maine project last week.

In other states, ballot measures could have energy implications at the city level.

In Columbus, Ohio, voters will face an initiative that would redirect $87 million of the city’s $1 billion general fund to further energy efficiency efforts.

The proposal, which comes after voters last fall approved a plan to transition the city to 100% renewable energy, is opposed by city leaders who question the legitimacy of the initiative’s backers and say it would lead to cuts in fire and police protection and other city services.

Here’s a look at how 3 statewide races could change the U.S. energy sector:

Maine

In this April 26 file photo, workers pound stakes to mark land on an existing Central Maine Power corridor that was widened to make way for the planned New England Clean Energy Connect transmission project.
In this April 26 file photo, workers pound stakes to mark land on an existing Central Maine Power corridor that was widened to make way for the planned New England Clean Energy Connect transmission project. | AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File

One of the nation’s most high-stakes votes on energy policy will take place in Maine, where a ballot initiative could spell death for a $1 billion power line that would serve as New England’s largest source of low-carbon electricity.

The New England Clean Energy Connect (NECEC) would carry Canadian hydropower through Maine and into Massachusetts, where it could meet roughly 17 percent of the latter state’s electricity demand, according to official estimates.

The Biden administration also supports the project as an example of large-scale transmission that would unbottle clean energy across the grid. In her tweet last week, Granholm urged Mainers to “keep this project moving.”

Yet the line has tapped into a vein of populist opposition, including from environmentalists, nuclear and gas operators, recreational sportspeople, First Nations tribes, and legislators from both parties (Energywire, Aug. 27).

After a failed first try last summer, anti-NECEC petitioners got enough signatures to force today’s ballot initiative. It asks Mainers whether to block large power lines that follow NECEC’s current path and would require two-thirds of the state Legislature to approve any future “high-impact” transmission project.

Several local polls have indicated that the anti-NECEC position is likely to prevail. Some observers say that if it does, developers could cancel the power line after several years of work.

“I think it would be very, very difficult for this project to go into effect, if it’s voted down,” said Jim Melcher, a professor of political science at the University of Maine, Farmington.

“There’s an extremely good chance that it could be [voted down],” he added.

The fact that public opinion about NECEC doesn’t break down easily along partisan lines, Melcher cautioned, made the outcome harder to predict. Developers might try to appeal an unwelcome outcome in court, he added.

Chief backers of the line declined to speculate on what would happen if their side lost the ballot initiative, although they warned of negative consequences for Maine’s business climate and New England’s transition to clean energy.

Thorn Dickinson, president of NECEC Transmission LLC, said if the initiative were passed, it would send “a chilling message that business is not welcome in our state and [threaten] Maine’s renewable energy future.” NECEC Transmission is the line’s developer and is wholly owned by Central Maine Power Co., the state’s largest investor-owned utility.

Lynn St-Laurent, spokesperson for Hydro Quebec, which would supply the hydropower for the transmission line, echoed those warnings. In an email to E&E News, she said the initiative “carries great risks for future energy development in Maine, not just for new hydro lines but any type of renewable energy transmission.”

The power line would deliver only a relatively small portion of hydropower into Maine itself, amounting to about one-twentieth of the state’s electricity generation in 2019. Developers have sought to obtain the right of passage through Maine in exchange for billions of dollars in tax payments, earning the support of Maine’s Democratic Gov. Janet Mills.

In Massachusetts — the primary recipient of the line’s power — energy officials are betting on the project as a key for halving CO2 emissions by 2030 and reaching net-zero CO2 by 2050.

If the state misses out on energy from the power line, it would likely need to build far more offshore wind, a source of electricity that falls short of the round-the-clock attributes of hydropower, according to officials.

“The NECEC Project is of vital importance to Massachusetts,” wrote staff at the office of the state’s Attorney General Maura Healey (D), in a filing with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission last month.

That appeared to mark a turnaround for Healey’s office, which had previously questioned the power line’s climate profile. It previously had argued that the NECEC might simply shift emissions to other parts of Canada that receive Hydro Quebec’s electricity. Healey’s office declined comment to E&E News.

Other opponents maintain that the NECEC would do little to decrease emissions, while cutting through wildlife habitats and perpetuating the Canadian hydropower industry’s legacy of land grabs from First Nations groups.

“The NECEC corridor perpetuates the ongoing environmental racism caused by Canada’s hydropower industry,” said Meg Sheehan, coordinator of the North American Megadam Resistance Alliance.

“Importing this electricity is not green and violates every principle that [Massachusetts] Gov. [Charlie] Baker claimed he supports,” Sheehan said. “It is a big green lie.”

In Maine, the NECEC has cast an enormous shadow over energy policy and partisan politics in general.

Some leading opponents have used the line, and public discontent with utility developer Central Maine Power, as the launch pad for other campaigns. One such effort seeks to promote a public takeover of CMP and the other investor-owned utility. In another, a former state lawmaker, Tom Saviello, has said he may mount a third-party challenge to Mills in the next gubernatorial election, if the ballot initiative doesn’t kill the project.

In the lead-up to the ballot initiative, noted Melcher at the University of Maine, Farmington, both opponents and supporters of the NECEC have engaged in an advertising blitz fueled by tens of millions of dollars in spending.

“You watch the local news, and it’s just a bombardment on both sides,” he said.

For many Mainers, debates over the project have also tapped into deeper reservations about the role of foreign energy interests — since CMP’s owner, Avangrid, has a Spanish parent company, while Hydro Quebec is based in Canada — as well as locals’ desire to protect their rural identity, added Melcher.

“The issues have always been there. It was kind of like a land mine that was going to blow up eventually,” he said.

Virginia

In Virginia, the gubernatorial race is being closely watched nationally for what it may say about the state of the economy, inflation worries, Biden’s poll numbers and the administration’s difficulties in getting its agenda through Congress. It’s also being viewed as a test case for post-Trump Republicans, with Trump-endorsed Youngkin seeking to keep his distance from the former president. Trump has steadfast supporters in the state but remains deeply unpopular in Virginia’s more populated northern suburbs.

Virginia’s two high-profile energy programs in the state could give the chief executive a national profile in efforts to move the energy sector away from fossil fuels and into renewables.

Virginia’s next governor will oversee enactment of the state’s landmark Clean…



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