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Energizing Progress: Legal Reforms for Transmission Siting Inspired by Maine’s NECEC Project

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by Laura Frances

Laura Frances (she/her) is a second-year Master of City Planning student concentrating in Smart Cities. She is most interested in how to leverage technology to make cities more climate resilient and energy efficient. Before her time at Penn, Laura managed digital equity programs for a new national non-profit and before that started an innvoation consultancy called Built Interest that worked as owners’ representatives to develop alternative real estate products from hyper-local food halls in Toronto to zero-carbon coworking in Berlin.

[1] Larson et al., Net-Zero America: Potential Pathways, Infrastructure, and Impacts, Final Report Summary, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, 29 October 2021.

[2] Bakke, Gretchen. The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans and Our Energy Future, Bloomsbury, New York, NY, 2017.

[3] Net-Zero America

[4] “How Much Solar Energy Do US Homes Produce?,” USAFacts. 4, 2023. 

 The Grid. 

[11] (2021, March 1). New England Power Grid 2022–2023 Profile. ISO New England.

[12] Massachusetts General Court. (2016). Chapter 188: An Act to promote energy diversity. 

[13] National Renewable Energy Laboratory. (2022). Wind Speeds [Image]. U.S. Department of Energy. Retrieved from 

[14] Benjamin Storrow, “4 Lawsuits Threaten Vineyard Wind,” E&E News by POLITICO, March 29, 2023.

[21] “Maine Voters Reject Quebec Hydropower Transmission Line,” Reuters, November 3, 2021, sec. Americas.

[22] NECEC Transmission LLC, et al. v. Bureau of Parks and Lands, et al., 2022 ME 48, BCD-21-416 (Me. 2022). 

] NEWS CENTER Maine Staff, & Sharp, D. (Associated Press). (2023, April 20). Developers have right to finish $1B power line, jury says. NEWS CENTER Maine.

] Constantino, Sara, and Elke U. Weber. “Decision-making Under the Deep Uncertainty of Climate Change: The Psychological and Political Agency of Narratives.” Current Opinion in Psychology, vol. 42, Dec. 2021, pp. 151–59.

] Building American Energy Security Act of 2023, S.1399, 118th Cong. (2023-2024).

“Manchin Moves Ball Forward on Permitting Reform.” U.S. Senate Committee on Energy And Natural Resources, 2 May 2023. 

Large interstate transmission lines are critical for an affordable and efficient clean energy transition, but existing legal frameworks, or lack thereof, make it difficult to site and build them. Federal law leaves siting decisions up to states despite most modern transmission projects’ interstate and international nature. This legal vacuum deepens pathways for local opposition to delay and blocks projects that are critical to achieving the nation’s 2050 carbon-zero goals.

   All carbon-zero ambitions in the U.S. are currently infeasible. According to Princeton’s 2021 Net Zero America study, the power grid is at capacity, and to reach carbon-zero in the next 26 years, the country will need to increase its transmission capacity by 2 to 5 times. [1]  Adding capacity is not the only hurdle. Critical infrastructure nodes such as power plants and transformers are too old to handle the increased capacity and demand. More than 70% of the grid is over 25 years old (2017), [2] and all power plants will need to be replaced by 2050. [3]

   On the flip side, this forced overhaul of our grid has a silver lining. The grid needs to be radically transformed to accommodate our clean energy future. The grid was built to facilitate the top-down flow of fossil fuel energy across the country, with no regard for negative externalities. By comparison, the transition to clean energy demands a bottom-up approach, where distributed clean energy generators – from windy seashores off Alabama to sunny pitched rooftops on New Hampshire cabins – give and take energy from the grid.

   In Maine, bare-knuckled legal battles over the New England Clean Energy Connect (NECEC) transmission line project exemplify the challenges ahead. The project was nearly abandoned after an embattling series of legal challenges despite receiving federal and State permits, largely completing the project’s construction, and offering an array of local economic development perks. Despite the projects’ value for clean energy, its opponents expressed valid and urgent legal arguments – a clean energy transition does not need to destroy natural systems, take advantage of the precarious status of tribal lands, or usurp public input. 

   A green transition must mean a democratic transition. Ordinary citizens can now be energy generators, and nearly 6 million homeowners already are. [4] Everybody has an unprecedented stake in how the energy grid is built from the ground up. Transmission line siting and permitting need democratic reforms that allow us to keep up with the demand for clean energy distribution while keeping the public involved in projects that are built to serve the public. As author Gretchen Bakke artfully wrote in her book, The Grid, “The grid is built as much from law as from steel.”[5] The grid’s legal frameworks must be rapidly reformed to stop gap the current vacuum and ensure a smooth and equitable green transition across the country.

Image: Map of NCEC Transmission Line Project
Source: Jonathan Zisk and Central Maine Power

Current Federal Framework

   A robust power grid is foundational to the nation’s energy security. How we define robustness is evolving as the grid shifts towards renewable energy sources. To streamline this evolution, the Energy Policy Act of 2005 authorized the Secretary of Energy to establish national interest corridors to alleviate electricity transmission congestion. [6] According to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), the provision allows the Commission to expedite siting processes and permitting in select corridors.

   However, legal ambiguity muddles these efforts. [7] In 2009, after FERC granted such permits for projects in the Southwest, a coalition of petitioners led by the New York State Public Service Commission appealed to the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., and the court agreed: FERC cannot assert its power to override transmission siting denials made by states. However, the court’s dissent opined, “that FERC’s authority may be limited does not even suggest that Congress would not have authority to grant applications in some situations in which states had denied them.” [8] In 2010 the respondents appealed the case; however, the Supreme Court let the decision stand without comment. [9] The legal limits on the federal government’s scope of influence even in ‘national interest corridors’ have impacted developer confidence in pursuing these crucial infrastructure projects for fear of unfettered legal fees and other hold-ups.

   The grid is arguably the largest machine in the world; however, it is intensely local. The scale of the nation’s grid is in focus as we transition to renewables because of the seasonal, daily, and hourly mismatches between where power is generated and where it is needed. Moving electricity thousands of miles can happen nearly instantly across high voltage direct current wires. It is possible to optimize how energy is generated and distributed, even across the country’s diverse topography. However, to get there, at least 275,000 miles of new transmission lines need to be built. [10]

   Building hundreds of thousands of miles of new transmission and updating nearly all the existing infrastructure requires coordinated resource allocation and legal pathways to siting and permitting. It is critical to study cases like those in Maine to identify new legal pathways and reforms that govern how we build and manage our grid. We need to be able to permit a clean energy transition that is not mutually exclusive with protecting natural ecosystems or respecting local preferences to secure our energy future.

Case Study: The New England Clean Energy Connect (NECEC)

   Compared to the rest of the country, New England is disproportionately dependent on burning fossil fuels to power its electric grid. [11] To rapidly decarbonize its grid, in 2016 the Massachusetts legislature passed an act that requires utilities to dramatically increase the amount of electricity sourced from hydropower by 1.2 Gigawatts (GW) and from wind power by 1.6 GW. [12] Geographically, Massachusetts’s long and curving coastline is well suited for wind power production. [13] However, offshore wind quickly became a political pariah. Local opposition swiftly rejected projects and strung up legal arguments against turbine installation. [14]

   In 2018, Massachusetts refocused on its hydropower ambitions instead. The State put forth a request for proposals (RFP) to procure the mandated 1.2 GW. From the start, the RFP process was riddled with controversy. Firstly, RFP responses were reviewed by a panel that included the State’s three distribution utilities: National Grid, Unitil, and Eversource Energy. Suspiciously, the winning proposal was a joint bid between Hydro-Quebec and Eversource Energy, one of the panelists. The fact that a profit-maximizing corporation had a hand in selecting itself for a lucrative project is not necessarily to say the committee selected the wrong proposal amongst the dozens submitted. It is to say, however, that the bid was incomplete and arguably should have been disqualified. The project hinged on an outstanding permit to bury the transmission wires under the White Mountains in New Hampshire that was ultimately denied.

   Embarrassed by misplaced confidence, Massachusetts shifted to an alternative plan to deliver clean energy from Hydro-Quebec in partnership with Central Maine Power Maine (CMP). Wary of looming legal challenges, the project undertook an 18-month comprehensive analysis, and in 2019, CMP’s New England Clean Energy Connect (NECEC) won the Maine Public Utilities Commission’s project approval. This endorsement granted a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity (CPCN), which allowed the construction of an electric transmission line from the Maine/Quebec border to Lewiston, Maine. In Lewiston, the deal included a $300 million investment in a new substation that would generate local jobs and would secure Mainers preferential energy rates from clean sources. [15]

   While the deal claimed to “address the twin challenges of climate change and energy affordability,” Mainers did not accept the notion that the energy from Hydro-Quebec was “clean.” [16] Locals claimed the energy would, in fact, be riddled with closed-door corruption, foreign beneficiaries, exploited tribal lands, and significant forest loss to such a degree that it undermined any potential upside. [17]

   CMP was already in hot water with its Maine customers that year for botching the rollout of a new payment system and sending unexpectedly inflated invoices. [18] Furthermore, CMP is a subsidiary of Avangrid, the U.S. subsidiary of Iberdrola, a Spanish utility company. So not only was CMP a distrusted foreign utility company, it was set to partner with another foreign utility in Canada. Hydro-Quebec’s reputation was not much better back home than it was in Maine– When they constructed the dams in the mid-1990s, thousands of acres of tribal land were flood flooding displaced wildlife, hunting game, farmland, and local development opportunities. At least five First Nations in Quebec and two Indigenous tribes in New England opposed NECEC, arguing the project is inequitable and unjust. [19]

   Furthermore, the project’s ecological impact was also a non-starter for many locals. For explanatory purposes, the 147-mile transmission line is effectively divided between new and upgraded corridor segments. The approved plan called for 53 miles of a new transmission corridor from the Canadian border to the Forks Plantation area. By using a high-voltage direct-current (HVDC) line, the proposed corridor would measure about 170 feet wide compared to typical 400-foot wide corridors. The remaining 94 miles of the proposed corridor would widen existing “rights-of-way”. In the following months, NECEC started construction spending $450 million to cut 124 miles of line corridor and erected over 100 transmission poles. [20] While the project was seemingly full steam ahead, tumultuous parallel narratives were unfolding between the courts, the public, and the transmission developers.

Legal Challenges and Citizens’ Opposition

   Maine residents were determined to find a way to have a say in the NECEC project from day one. From filing over 1,000 public comments to persistently appealing state and local court rulings to suspend project permits, Mainers steadfastly charged up the growing ‘Stop the Corridor’ campaign. While legal challenges and appeals played out in the courts, the public comments evolved into the state’s most expensive ballot initiative campaign in history. 

   The public referendum aimed to set a retroactive precedent that would not only stymie NECEC’s development but any other projects that intended to leverage legacy leases and land use permits without a 2/3 majority vote in the legislature. On November 2, 2021, 59% of Mainers voted in favor of the referendum and formally challenged NECEC’s constitutionality. To avoiding the need for legislative approval, the NECEC immediately filed to block this retroactive application of the Initiative. [21]

   The Superior Court denied NECEC’s complaint and kept the Initiative alive, nothing that the complaint was resolved by existing law  and that, because of the separation of powers, the Court had no say in legislative affairs. However, the Superior Court Justices offered a historical review of vested rights through the lens of the Maine and U.S. Constitutions and ultimately contended with NECEC that “vested rights are properly viewed as arising from the Maine Constitution’s due process law.” This meant that the Initiative would retroactively interfere with NECEC’s “constitutionally-protected vested rights,” and that the NECEC had secured a pathway forward. [22]

   This report was not the end of the road for NECEC. The project’s opposition argues that when NECEC continued construction throughout the legal battles, it tried to generate a vested rights claim artificially. Superior Court Justice Michael A. Duddy ordered a jury trial and put the fate of the trials in the hands of nine ordinary citizens - a strategic nod to the people’s desire to secure their voice in Maine’s energy future. In March 2023, the jury unanimously issued a verdict in favor of the project, finding that the construction was undertaken in reliance on the PUC permit and “according to a schedule that was not created or expedited for the purpose of generating a vested rights claim.” In other words, they ruled that the public referendum was unconstitutional. After that, Maine DEP and other regulators lifted their suspensions, and the line was back on track to complete construction and deliver clean energy to the region. For now, the jury sealed the fate of the project, and the ‘Stop the Corridor’ campaign officially closed its books. [23]

Recommendations for Reform 

   The siting and permitting of transmission lines is the Achilles heel of our energy future. [24] We need to decarbonize our economies in the next quarter century, but the protracted and resource-intensive process for siting and permitting transmission lines remains a significant obstacle. We cannot wait for  a breakthrough technology to emerge and hyper-accelerate our phasing out of fossil fuels to generate electricity. To surmount this challenge, it is imperative that we establish a national streamlined regulatory framework that fosters efficiency, consistency, and collaboration across jurisdictions.

   U.S. Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) tried to address this issue by introducing the Building American Energy Security Act of 2023 earlier this year. [25] Emphasizing the need for swift action, Manchin noted, “In the United States, it often takes between five and ten years — sometimes longer — to get critical energy infrastructure projects approved, putting us years behind allies like Canada, Australia, and more recently the E.U., who each have policies designed to complete permitting in three years or less.” [26] Among its primary functions, the bill sets maximum timelines for permitting reviews, establishes a statute of limitations on court cases, and creates a national energy infrastructure priority list.

   Regrettably, the bill overlooks a crucial dimension: environmental protection in project prioritization. Though local opposition campaigns often halt projects for reasons unrelated to environmental concerns, environmental protection still lies at the heart of many critical legal battles. The bill must incorporate these considerations into its evaluation matrix to establish a siting and permitting framework capable of assuaging local opposition. The legal battle in Maine exemplifies this, as even though NECEC would have qualified as a national energy infrastructure priority project under the bill’s current language, it faced six years of intense opposition that nearly prevented it from happening at all.

   The legal climate around vested rights continues to complicate matters. Using the NECEC precedent, legacy energy operators may invoke vested rights to propagate infrastructure incongruent with the technological demands of the clean energy transition. This underscores the critical need to get legislative efforts like the Building American Energy Security Act right. It also underscores the importance of more constructive public lobbying. It is shortsighted to dismiss every opposition campaign as mere self-interested NIMBYism. Advocacy initiatives like ‘Stop the Corridor’ can encourage developers to create more equitable and sustainable projects. However, the current judicial process tends to reward battles based on technicalities for quick political wins, rather than providing a platform for judiciously considered reforms aimed at mutually beneficial solutions.

   We must empower the public to participate through a ranked-choice voting system, allowing them to prioritize the dimensions shaping a critical energy infrastructure project. Siting decisions will render trade-offs, so putting forth either or siting processes will fail to keep up with the demands of the energy transition. Reforms can allow for dimensionality in siting decisions so that local concerns and national interests can progress concurrently. For instance, if Mainers had the opportunity to rank their concerns and priorities, the Public Utility Commission could have brokered a more favorable agreement from the outset. This approach would provide the FERC with more actionable directives derived directly from the public’s preferences and concerns to shape a project’s direction. By moving past zero-sum strategies, public campaigns could more effectively broker and demand accountability for community benefits agreements and other win-win scenarios. 

   By directing public input toward shaping future decisions rather than relying on them ex post facto, we can create a more effective framework for achieving a clean energy future. This approach ensures that the public’s priorities remain integrated into energy projects, even as they change over time, fostering a sustainable and responsive energy infrastructure. Federally streamlined regulatory frameworks that enforce  democratic established best practices for energy infrastructure siting and permitting could have been an influential arbiter in Maine and potentially across the country. Considering the need to build 275,000 more miles of transmission lines in the coming decade, the opportunity to reform this process has never been more promising.

   We stand at a critical inflection point in building the future we want to live in. Two things can be concurrently true: The public has a vested right to clean, affordable energy security, and it is in our best interest to leverage existing assets to propel us toward a clean energy future that enhances our capacity for innovation, not just for 2050 but for centuries to come. 

[6] Energy Policy Act of 2005, Public Law 58, U.S. Statutes at Large 119 (2005): 594-1143.

[7] OP US EPA, “Summary of the Energy Policy Act,” Overviews and Factsheets, February 22, 2013.

[8] Piedmont Envtl. Council v. FERC, 558 F.3d 304

[9] Power, & Power. (2010, January 27). Supreme Court declines review of FERC Power Line Siting Authority case. POWER Magazine. 

[10] Net-Zero America


[15] “Maine Public Utilities Commission Approves New England Clean Energy Connect — New England Clean Energy Connect.” New England Clean Energy Connect, 11 Apr. 2019.

[16] Ibid. 

[17] “Indigenous Communities Speak Out on New England Clean Energy Connect (CMP Corridor) and Related Hydroelectric Projects,” Arctic Museum, accessed March 5, 2024.

 Linehan, Josh. “CMP Misled the Public, Mismanaged Rollout of New Billing System.” Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel, 23 June 2019.

 Hayes, Emily. “First Nations Oppose NECEC; Accuse Hydro-Québec of Energy Injustices.” RTO Insider, 14 June 2023.

 NECEC Transmission LLC, DOE Docket No. PP-438, Presidential Permit (DOE Jan. 14, 2021)


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