Maine voters have a chance to define the future of electricity delivery in a state where hydroelectricity plays a leading role.
Tuesday’s referendum is among several in the United States to consider replacing wind, solar and biomass with hydro, with states from North Dakota to New Mexico pondering whether to build dams in the coming decades. Supporters say the plants will generate more power cheaply and cleanly than other forms of energy, but critics worry that prices will rise as the plants come online.
The fate of Hydro-Québec, the largest dam operator in the United States, is at the heart of the referendum on the French-Canadian firm’s proposal to build three hydroelectric plants in southern Maine. The plants are expected to produce 1,100 megawatts, enough power for more than 2 million homes, according to Hydro-Québec.
The Maine Green Energy Act, which was passed by the Legislature in 2015, paved the way for a June 18 vote on the plan. Its author, Rep. John Fiore, R-Kennebunk, a former Maine utilities commissioner, is seeking to repeal the law, which would kill the proposal.
“The bottom line is that this would be a huge increase in energy prices that would make it almost impossible for Maine families and businesses to afford and maintain basic residential and business needs,” Fiore said.
The referendum follows votes in two California counties last year that scrapped bids from developers looking to build two large hydroelectric projects on state lands. Those projects would have brought 363 megawatts of electricity to those counties, according to Pacific Gas & Electric, which is considering building a small number of small dams on existing rivers in southern California.
Hydroelectricity has been big in Maine for decades. Part of a campaign to replace the defunct Portland Steam Plant in the 1980s, Hydro-Québec’s Lewiston plant, is expected to be the largest in the state by the time it becomes operational. Yet the company has plans to build two more, which will be judged Tuesday.
At present, Hydro-Québec owns a system of 743 megawatts at three dams that pump water up an 8,000-foot hill to power a manufacturing plant in Lewiston, a city of nearly 57,000 people.
Hydro-Québec did not respond to requests for comment. A spokesman for Gov. Paul LePage, R-Maine, pointed to comments that the governor made a decade ago in support of the project.
Maine voters last rejected a local ballot proposal for Hydro-Québec in 1982, when a coalition of business, conservation and environmental groups gathered enough signatures to put the issue on the ballot. It failed 55 percent to 45 percent.
In this year’s Maine referendum, Hydro-Québec is challenging the state’s constitution.
The company has funded a campaign called Protecting Maine’s Future that began running television advertisements in December, and it has spent about $3.6 million on the effort, according to a recent filing with the state Ethics Commission.
A public affairs firm in Maine hired by Hydro-Québec has produced a series of videos trying to bolster the case for the company’s proposal, which it views as a way to help Maine’s “exceptionally underused and underutilized” potential.
“Those of us who are die-hard supporters of Hydro-Québec recognize that this proposal may not fly with a solid majority of Maine voters,” spokeswoman Lainie Dube said in an email. “We also recognize that it is our responsibility to demonstrate why this plan is good for the people of Maine.”
But some residents are divided on the issue.
“Whether you’re for or against it, I think the people in the middle need to be aware that they have options,” said Michael Bowen, 30, a co-owner of a heating and air conditioning business in Lewiston.