BOSTON — A plan to bring Canadian hydropower into Massachusetts to green the power grid faces an uncertain future amid opposition from activists in a neighboring state.

A $950 million project, which is being pursued by Central Maine Power Company, calls for delivering 9.4 million megawatt-hours a year of hydropower to Massachusetts consumers and New England's regional power grid for the next two decades. That's enough to supply roughly 17% of the state's peak electricity demand.

A 2016 law requires utilities to buy clean power to address climate change and diversify the state's energy portfolio. The New England Clean Energy Connect project would import electricity generated by Hydro-Québec's hydroelectric dams along a yet-to-be-built, 145-mile transmission line through western Maine.

But opponents say the project is a bad deal for Maine, as it would carve through scenic swaths of untouched forest and lead to a loss of jobs and recreational tourism.

They've submitted enough signatures to put the project before the state's voters in November, which could end up derailing Massachusetts' clean energy plans.

"This project would basically create an extension cord running from Quebec to Massachusetts, with no benefit to the people of Maine," said Sandra Howard, executive director of Say No to NECEC, a coalition of environmental groups opposed the project.

"It would cause large-scale environmental damage in what is the largest intact forest east of the Mississippi," she said.

Avangrid, parent company of Central Maine Power, argues that the clean energy project is good for Maine and the environment, and it will reduce carbon emissions that scientists say are contributing to a warming planet.

A company spokeswoman said there are questions "regarding the validity of the signatures" submitted to the state by the project's opponents and "whether they were attained legally."

"If this matter does go to referendum, we will make sure that Maine voters have all the facts about the project," the company said in a statement. "We will also consider all other options available to us."

Second pass

Despite simmering opposition, the project has been slowly but steadily moving through the regulatory process.

In January, Maine's Land Use Planning Commission gave a green light to the project to proceed after determining that it complies with the panel's land use requirements.

The project must also get approval from Maine's Department of Environmental Protection, among other regulatory hurdles. The final plan must be certified by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and get a presidential permit from the U.S. Department of Energy because its transmission line would cross the border into another country.

The New England Clean Energy Connect project is actually Massachusetts' second choice to import hydropower-generated electricity.

The Northern Pass project, a joint venture between Hydro Quebec and Eversource, was the state's first attempt and was expected to convey 1 million megawatt hours per year through a 192-mile transmission line that would have run through New Hampshire. It was rejected by New Hampshire regulators in 2018 amid concerns it would suppress property values and damage the tourism industry.

Environmental groups, which have prodded Massachusetts to move away its reliance on fossil fuels and natural gas, want the state to accelerate a switch to wind, solar and renewable energies.

While some environmentalists support hydropower as an alternative to expanding the use of natural gas to heat homes and keep the lights turned on, they point out that hydro also has downsides. Among those are forests lost to flooding for new dams, the release of carbon dioxide from trees decomposing after floods and lower river levels.

Green goals

Meanwhile, plans for the country's first utility-scale offshore wind farm remain on hold amid opposition from President Donald Trump, a vocal critic of wind energy who has focused on supporting coal and other fossil fuel industries.

Vineyard Wind, a $2.8 billion, 84-turbine wind farm planned 15 miles south of Martha's Vineyard, was delayed in July by federal regulators amid concerns about the impact on commercial fisherman. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management said additional review is needed in light of the concerns raised by "stakeholders and cooperating agencies."

In Massachusetts, state leaders are under pressure to meet energy demand and ambitious benchmarks to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The state Supreme Judicial Court ruled in 2018 that Massachusetts isn't following its own law aimed at reducing those emissions. The court required annual limits on greenhouse gas emissions until the state meets goals it set for itself in 2008 under the Global Warming Solutions Act.

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhi.com

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