We’re heading for an impasse or a pact on New England’s energy future

Most of us have a pretty good idea where our heat energy comes from — our electricity, not so much, except a vague understanding that it comes out of a wall outlet at the flip of a switch.

A week and a half ago, the six New England governors from both political parties issued a remarkable joint statement outlining their agreement to cooperate regionally on energy supply and distribution decisions, which will likely affect where we get our heat and electricity in the future.

Although each of the governors has his or her own energy strategy and constituencies to satisfy, they have an even stronger mutual interest in cooperating on hugely expensive investments in transmission lines and pipelines that distribute electricity and natural gas across state lines. As New Englanders, our energy fates are deeply intertwined. To understand the stakes involved, the following is a quick primer on the issues involved.

In Maine, Gov. Paul LePage is betting that natural gas prices will remain low for the next several decades and consequently wants taxpayers to guarantee enough supply to entice a natural gas company to extend a pipeline north into Maine to reduce our dependence on more expensive home heating oil, given that we have the highest percentage of houses that heat with oil of any state in the country.

As far as Maine’s electric energy goes, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency, half of our electricity generation came from renewable energy resources in 2011, leading the region. A quarter of that energy comes from hydroelectricity, 21 percent from wood, and 4.5 percent from wind. The other half of our electricity came from non-utility natural gas producers. And contrary to what you may have heard, Maine had the lowest average electricity retail prices in New England at the end of 2011.

Across the Piscataqua, Gov. Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire is currently grappling with a big decision on whether to allow a new 180-mile-long overhead transmission line to bisect her state north to south to deliver Canadian hydropower to the New England grid, much of which would be sold in Massachusetts and Connecticut. The project, called Northern Pass, has been hugely controversial, especially in rural parts of New Hampshire, where many residents would rather live free than die under a new power line.

In Vermont, three quarters of the state’s electricity came from a nuclear power plant that has just announced it will close down permanently next year. Perhaps providentially, a private company, Transmission Developers Inc., has announced a new plan to lay a new underwater cable down the length of Lake Champlain and then underground to a grid interconnect to bring Canadian hydropower into the New England market, which could help Vermont replace the defunct nuclear power.

Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy and Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee both want to diversify their state’s energy portfolios, which are heavily dependent on natural gas for both heat and electricity, and both are eager to access Canadian hydropower. Access to Canadian hydropower is especially important to Connecticut’s governor because of his state’s commitment to increasing its renewable energy use by 2020 to 27 percent of its total consumption, which is one of the highest in the nation.

Because no other renewable source on the near horizon is capable of producing that supply, Connecticut is deeply dependent on its neighbors in either Vermont or New Hampshire to permit a new transmission line to be built in their states.

In Massachusetts, the big news is that the state’s two largest coal-fired electric plants have also just announced plans to shut down in the near future. Massachusetts wants to replace that coal-fired power with Canadian hydropower, in part to meet its renewable energy goal of 15 percent by 2020, although presumably some of that could be electricity produced by Cape Wind, the first permitted offshore wind project in the U.S., if the lawsuits ever end.

Regional decisions about how we invest in infrastructure to satisfy our energy and heating needs these six governors will be making in the near future will have enormous environmental consequences that we will live with for many decades into the future. Too bad our children don’t get to vote; in the meantime we all need to pay attention.


Philip Conkling

About Philip Conkling

For the past 30 years, Philip Conkling served as the founding publisher and senior editor of Island Journal and The Working Waterfront at the Island Institute in Rockland.