BRATTLEBORO — One of the challenges to reducing greenhouse gas emissions is opposition to infrastructure projects that would support the introduction of renewable energy into the New England power grid.
“Recently, the construction of the New England Clean Energy Connect transmission line was halted after Maine voted against the corridor project in a referendum,” said Will Dodge, a director at Downs Rachlin Martin who focuses on wireless telecommunications, energy and land use law.
In November, Maine voters in a referendum blocked the continued construction of the transmission corridor that would stretch 150 miles across Maine connecting hyrdopower producers to energy users in the Northeast. In response, New England Clean Energy Connect filed an appeal with the Maine Supreme Court contesting the constitutionality of the referendum. The case is pending.
And two years ago in New Hampshire, the Supreme Court affirmed the state’s Site Evaluation Committee’s rejection of Eversource’s Northern Pass project, which would have stretched the length of the state, also connecting energy users to Canadian power producers.
“And in Vermont, while the TDI project [the New England Clean Energy Link] was approved to bring transmission down to Massachusetts via Lake Champlain ... the price tag was so great as to basically disqualify it from serious consideration,” said Dodge during an online forum presented by the Northeast Energy and Commerce Association.
“The slow advancement of offshore wind and resistance to solar projects are further complicating our ability to meet energy goals that have been set for the period between 2030 and 2050,” said Dodge.
“Climate change is happening,” Robert Jackson, the director of solar storage project development at Ameresco. “We need to change the energy infrastructure, it’s going to cost a lot of money, who’s going to pay for it? What technologies are going to be implemented? That’s the discussion that we’re having every day.”
Jackson noted that the one thing that often stands in the way of a power generation or transmission project is concern over protecting environmental resources.
But if we don’t find a way to decarbonize the grid, he said, the environmental resources we are seeking to protect will disappear due to climate change.
“We have mass extinction events ongoing and if we don’t transition to the new 21st century grid, we’re not going to really have priority habitats ... more species will be extinct.”
Jackson said it’s imperative that project developers are on the ground, talking with communities about their needs and enlisting community members in pushing for renewable generation and new transmission.
“The evolution of the grid certainly needs to move at this pace of climate change. We have to get out there and meet a lot of folks in person. ... We should all be looking at this as we’re all on the same team, and we’re trying to mitigate climate change. All communities are going to have to be a part of the solution.”
TJ Roskelley, a partner at Anderson and Krieger LLP, said while interstate transmission lines are important, equally important are connecting solar and wind farms to the grid and making upgrades to the existing infrastructure so it can support the additional load.
“It’s going to take working cooperatively to make all of these targets a reality,” he said, especially during the environmental permitting process, “which, depending on the type of project can take anywhere from a few months, to many, many years.”
While the federal government has implemented practices to expedite the regulatory process, said Roskelley, “Inevitably they run into issues at the staff level within the regulatory agencies because it’s a staff that has to manage competing requests like this, and often they’re woefully understaffed.”
On the federal level, developers also have to deal with what Roskelley described as “administrative whipsaw.”
“You have different administrations and they can have dramatically different regulatory agendas,” he said. “And so one administration comes in with sweeping changes. They’re replaced by another who then claws that back and makes sweeping changes of their own. ... So it’s important to keep track of what’s happening on that level and also keep an eye towards the future because again, you know, we might keep getting whipsawed back and forth on these types of issues.”
At the same time, he said, developers also have to create relationships with community stakeholders, environmental groups, tribal nations and others that will play a significant role in the environmental permitting process.
Joseph Rossignoli, a consultant with Ross Emergent LLC, acknowledged that while people understand the importance of power transmission, “they don’t want the transmission anywhere near them.”
He said partnering with communities early “is absolutely critical to to getting a project supported and over the finish line.”
Transmission line developers have few options, and they include putting lines underground, expanding existing corridors or stringing new line on old towers, he said.
“A good way to do that would be to make greater use of the existing transmission system and that tends to get nearly everyone on board — customers, neighbors, policymakers,” said Rossignoli.
Another solution is what’s known as a storage-as-transmission asset, basically a shipping container sized battery that stores electricity and makes it available when it’s needed the most.
In Vermont, Green Mountain Power has done this on a small scale with its Tesla Powerwall program, batteries distributed in homes around the state.
“We can certainly squeeze more out of the existing system,” said Rossignoli, but ultimately new transmission lines will need to be built to keep power flowing throughout the region.
Rossignoli said it’s important for developers to reiterate that building new transmission lines means reaching a goal everyone wants to reach — limiting and even eliminating the region’s dependence on fossil fuels.
“It’s becoming harder and [people] are more sophisticated, but they ask good questions,” said Rossignoli. “So we need to be better about telling our story.”
Robert Jackson, the director of solar storage project development at Ameresco, said his company is developing solar arrays of less than 20 megawatts with their own standalone battery storage systems.
“What we’re seeing in the market and in terms across the United States, things are looking pretty good for solar and wind since 2019,” said Jackson.
Ninety percent of new generation added to the grid has been solar and wind in those two years, he said.
“That’s great news for us and addressing climate change and decarbonizing the grid.”
As mentioned previously, he said, there are challenges, not only with transmitting the power and permitting projects, but also in labor and materials costs. And there is also the challenge of getting the assistance of communities who value their natural resources.
“Vermont’s a beautiful state and we don’t want to cut down any trees and, you know, I get that,” said Jackson. “But if you do an analysis of how much land you need to power the entire United States, it’s not really that much,” said Jackson. “It’s a fraction of Arizona. [But] can we get a huge solar array in Arizona and put on a transmission line?”
The real answer is a distributed grid, where each region is responsible for power generation, he said.
“In terms of solar specifically ... generally New England has been the policy innovator,” said Jackson. “But we know that this technology works anywhere on the planet.”