Any effort to block Central Maine Power Co.’s planned $1 billion transmission line through western Maine at the ballot box in November may be a bit like trying to block a moving train.

Already, tens of millions of dollars have been invested in land purchases, design and engineering, contracts and materials. Eight months from now, that figure will be many times higher. And if two outstanding permits are issued this spring as anticipated, right-of-way clearing could be well underway before November in the 53-mile forested corridor that’s a focus of opposition to the project.

That momentum has been gathering amid an effort by opponents of the transmission corridor project to forestall it through political action.

Organizers of a referendum effort to stop the transmission line expressed outrage Thursday when it was revealed in public documents that a CMP-funded political action committee hired a private investigator to track a female petitioner’s whereabouts and social media posts as she did her work. But the PAC, called Clean Energy Matters, said the investigation revealed “illegal and unethical activity” by the woman and eight other petition gatherers for No CMP Corridor, a group opposed to the transmission line.

The news came after state officials found that corridor opponents have gathered enough valid signatures for a ballot measure to stop the project. The pro-corridor group has until March 15 to review and challenge the secretary of state’s findings.

The referendum question is aimed at ordering the Maine Public Utilities Commission to reverse its finding that the project is in the best interests of the state. Legal experts said that action would be unprecedented and trigger a court fight.

So even as the referendum fight heats up, CMP is moving ahead with the project on several fronts.

In mid-February, it announced plans to begin construction this spring on the 145-mile New England Clean Energy Connect line, or NECEC, from the Maine-Quebec border to Lewiston. To illustrate its readiness and its commitment to local economic impact, CMP solicited media coverage about newly signed contracts worth $12 million with three Maine companies for wooden “mats” used to help move heavy equipment through the woods.

But publicizing those contracts was aimed more at public relations than anything else. It belied how far along NECEC really is, and how much money already has been spent in pursuit of the $1 billion venture. That’s because it takes years of lead time to secure the land, do the engineering and design work, order the specialized equipment and line up the labor needed for a project of its scale.

MILLIONS ALREADY SPENT

CMP and the entity set up to develop the line, NECEC Transmission LLC, declined recently to answer specific questions about spending. But public documents and interviews show:

• As of August 2019, CMP already had spent $56 million on the project, according to documents filed with the PUC, and that figure didn’t include buying land along the corridor. CMP is scheduled to file an updated spending estimate after ownership of the project assets are transferred to NECEC Transmission, but it’s unclear when that will happen.

• CMP has placed a downpayment of at least $12.5 million with the company that will manufacture the $250 million converter station in Lewiston that will turn direct current into alternating current to feed into the region’s electric grid. Only three companies in the world – General Electric, Siemens and ABB – build such custom-order equipment.

• Other contracts worth millions of dollars are being signed for the construction of the high-voltage DC transmission line from the Quebec border, along with upgrades on the existing AC line. Those deals may be announced later this month.

• Engineering work is complete and contracts are signed to fabricate the 850 steel poles, as well as wooden poles, needed for the project.

• Contracts are in the process of being awarded to drill under the Kennebec River and build termination stations on the banks, a $37 million job.

• CMP has entered into multiple service agreements worth millions of dollars for tasks that include program management, legal and permitting support and public outreach.

Clean Energy Matters spent $2.2 million in the last three months of 2019, much of it on advertising, to support the project. That figure is expected to increase this year.

The NECEC project will allow for up to 1,200 megawatts of hydropower to be delivered to New England from dams in Quebec. CMP’s agreement to send power to utilities in Massachusetts illustrates how millions of dollars must be doled out on a timeline sequenced to bring the project to fruition.

CMP’s contract with Eversource outlines 339 specific tasks and estimates how many days they should take to complete. They include: Gaining regulatory permits from Maine, Massachusetts and the federal government; engineering, design and construction of the HVDC converter; work on eight substations; and the addition of a unit to control power flow and stability, known as STATCOM.

The substation work will include three massive transformers used for stepping down high voltage. Those components must be ordered well ahead of time.

For context, CMP took delivery in 2012 of a 345-kilovolt “autotransformer” for its $1.4 billion Maine Power Reliability Program transmission system rebuild, two years after it had started the project. The 1-million-pound unit arrived by ship in Portland Harbor and was hauled by train and truck to a new $58 million substation in Lewiston.

DEADLINE PRESSURE

In a late-February earnings call with investors, CMP’s domestic parent company, Avangrid, moved back the start date of any construction on NECEC from spring to this summer. And at least publicly, the company is still shooting to have the line in service at the end of 2022.

Financial analysts on the call later quizzed Avangrid’s top management about the potential impact of the referendum and continuing public opposition on the company’s spending plans.

Management said it would make decisions in late spring or early summer. Avangrid CEO James Torgerson summed up the response this way: “We’re going to monitor things in Maine to make sure to see how things are going, and we’ll make a decision as to how much we intend to invest at that point in time.”

This uncertainty puts the project at a critical point now.

CMP initially had hoped to start construction in 2018. But Thorn Dickinson, the project’s president and CEO, said the original, five-year timeline was laid out with an eye toward a longer permitting schedule in Canada. CMP had estimated the job could be done more quickly, Dickinson said.

As of today, CMP estimates the construction schedule can be compressed to finish in December 2022, assuming it wins approvals from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection in early spring and from the U.S Army Corps of Engineers this summer.

In a recent interview, Dickinson declined to identify where construction might begin this summer, except to say it will be along sections of the DC line from Quebec to Lewiston. That could include widening the existing corridor to accommodate a second line and poles.

“There’s a lot of work going on right now in order to be ready,” he said.

Dickinson was asked when workers would start clearing the right-of-way in the 53-mile section from the Quebec border to the Kennebec River. That’s a key stretch. It’s the only place where a new corridor has to be built, and it’s where project opponents are most upset about potential impacts to wetlands, wildlife, recreation and views.

Much of the working forest along that section was acquired by CMP in 2016 from two commercial timberland owners, E.J. Carrier and Weyerhaeuser Co.

Dickinson said work to clear the 150-foot-wide corridor could begin this summer, if permits are in hand.

IS IT A DONE DEAL?

That prospect concerns project critics such as Sandi Howard, co-leader of the No CMP Corridor effort.

“Ideally, we would want to stop the project before any destruction is done to the environment,” she said. “But we know if they gain all their permit approvals, they are eligible to start construction.”

Howard also speculated that many Mainers would be upset if CMP began clearing forestland prior to the referendum vote. It might make some people more focused on efforts to stop the project, she said.

“CMP’s primary message has been, ‘This is a done deal,’ ” she said. “But we’ve worked for the last 19 months to show there are a lot of steps in this process, and it’s not a done deal.”

Howard said last month that some of the decisions by regulators likely will be appealed, possibly delaying the final issuance of permits. And CMP may still have to deal with opposition from towns along the corridor that have enacted moratoriums.

Facing this uncertainty, spending tens of millions of dollars on a project that doesn’t yet have all its approvals is a risky bet.

Last July, Boston-based utility Eversource Energy finally gave up an eight-year fight to move power from Hydro-Québec through New Hampshire, after losing a court battle over its Northern Pass proposal. Following the rejection, Eversource filed documents telling investors that it had spent $318 million and was writing off $200 million of the expense, equal to 64 cents a share.

It’s hard to compare spending on Northern Pass with NECEC. There are many unknowns, such as the cost of acquiring land along the proposed 192-mile route, which Northern Pass pegged at $40 million, but which NECEC has declined to disclose.

But whatever ultimately happens with NECEC, Massachusetts ratepayers and Hydro-Québec are paying all expenses, not Maine utility customers.

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