We live on the edge of the Great North Woods, more than 3 million acres of privately owned woodlands that are at the heart of a great debate about sending electricity through those woods south to Massachusetts.
It’s a controversial issue, but not a new one for the state, and one that’s closely related to an issue I investigated more than 20 years ago.
Then the focus was on Wyman Station, a power plant on Yarmouth’s Cousins Island that spewed nitrogen oxide and was one of the most serious air pollution sources in the state. Local residents mounted an aggressive protest that resulted in Florida Power & Light, then the owner, to clean up the heavy and dangerous emissions. It was a significant victory but only part of the air quality problem that plagued the state.
Now there’s another battle as Central Maine Power Co. and Hydro-Quebec develop the New England Clean Energy Connect, a corridor of electric transmission lines through the North Woods and ultimately into the New England grid. It’s a controversial issue that requires a crucial decision by Maine voters on the Nov. 2 ballot.
Proponents say that the project will add 9.45 TWh (9.45 trillion watt-hours) of clean hydropower for Massachusetts and 0.5 TWh (500 billion watt-hours) for Maine from Quebec. Opponents argue that it slashes through acres of wild woodlands and that Maine gets the short end of the stick in terms of energy remaining in the state.
But the issue is bigger and requires an understanding of how Maine is affected by air pollution.
The largest sources of air pollution that affect us are cars, trucks, and buses, followed by airborne pollutants that blow in from the midwest and south on the usual atmospheric currents. That means that some of the hazy days in Maine are the result of pollutants blowing east and north. Smoke from fires in the west creates an almost visible model of how those winds carry smoke, nitrogen oxide, and other pollutants that cause hazardous air conditions.
Proponents of the project say that the transmission line will have a significant impact on air quality. Opponents argue that the project has a devastating effect on sensitive habitats in the North Maine woods. Both are somewhat correct.
Power transported from Hydro Quebec to Massachusetts, and Maine, and perhaps farther on the electric grid, will help reduce pollution from more traditional fuel-fired electric plants. It will also impact the woods during construction, and likely as the line is maintained.
It will also contribute to the reduction of pollutants in the air that Mainers breathe, which is a big issue. The National Institute Of Health considers air pollution a significant contributor to respiratory infection and inflammation, cardiovascular dysfunction, and cancer, and perhaps there are more impacts not yet discovered.
We love our woods for a variety of reasons. They are great for hiking, snowmobiling, off-roading, fishing, hunting, or just for a Sunday afternoon ride. We want them to remain wild forever, and wild places are becoming increasingly scarce. But we also want to ensure that air quality improves, even if it means running a corridor through 3 million acres of woods.
Woods and power lines should be able to coexist.
Jan Grieco is a retired college instructor and former newspaper reporter. She lives in Perham, where she farms and lives off the land.