To connect or not to connect?

By Randall Poulton | Sep 03, 2020

To connect or not to connect, that is the question. Is it nobler to burn fossil fuels, content in the belief that we have saved the great North Maine Woods, or shall we declare our independence from Big Oil and embrace clean, dependable hydropower?

For those who have forgotten their high school physics, a quick review: Electricity consists of moving electrons. Normally, these tiny atomic particles prefer to stay close to home, wandering in circles around their partner proton. But, when sufficiently motivated, electrons will move along a wire at the speed of light! We call this movement electricity.

The state of Maine is covered with a spiderweb of wires that connect our homes and businesses to the great machines that generate the motivation needed to move electrons. We call all these wires a grid. Most of the motivation machines are powered by burning huge quantities of natural gas and oil. For example, the NextEra generator on Cousins Island (near Portland) burns 1,000 gallons of oil every minute. The people who own the machines on Cousin’s Island are very rich.

But it was not always this way. For most of 100 years, the machines that generated Maine’s electricity ran primarily on water, not oil or gas. Great dams were built on Maine’s rivers and the impounded waters drove turbines that motivated electrons to follow long wires, strung through the woods, to mills and homes located far away in places like Lewiston and Bucksport. But recently, we demolished many dams to “save the salmon,” and thus our current dependence on fossil fuels.

Now, CMP proposes to install a new wire that would connect the New England grid to the huge turbines owned by HydroQuebec. Vast numbers of electrons, being appropriately motivated, would follow this new wire across the border into Maine. In fact, the numbers would be so great (1,200 megawatts) that the oil-guzzling machines on Cousins Island would no longer be needed.

This prospect makes the owners of Maine’s gas- and oil-fired generators very unhappy. They watched with glee as Maine demolished many of its dams, diminishing the hydropower available to motivate electrons. And, when the great motivator in Wiscasset, Maine Yankee, was shut down, this glee turned to ecstasy. Gas and oil had a near monopoly. That may soon change. (Note: windmills and solar panels are intermittent motivators and Mainers rightly expect electrons to flow 24/7.)

CMP’s proposal to install a nice, new wire to Canada, known as the New England Clean Energy Connection, would break the fossil fuel monopoly that NextEra and its ilk now enjoy. The NECEC would cost these companies future fortunes. Accordingly, the battle over the NECEC was quickly joined. The new wire must be stopped. Save the trees. Millions of dollars flowed into the “no new wire” campaign. Certain well-oiled politicians and VIPs were recruited to preach against the new wire and many Mainers succumbed to these shills.

The truth is the NECEC will provide Maine, and the rest of the New England power grid, with a dependable supply of electrons motivated by the movement of water through Canadian turbines. Green power. And here is the ironic thing: Every year, thousands of Mainers drive north to Canada’s piscatorial paradise in pursuit of Atlantic salmon and giant brook trout. It seems dams and fish can, and do, coexist rather nicely.

This month's Did You Know

Back when Maine’s rivers were “blocked” by dams and clogged by millions of logs, there were still plenty of fish, including Atlantic salmon. The Penobscot river was the granddaddy of them all. In fact, for years, the Atlantic salmon fishery was so good it was world famous. The first fish caught each spring was presented to the president of the United States. The annual race to catch the “Presidential Salmon” was a spirited contest and well covered by the media.

But during the 1960s, the salmon runs decreased dramatically. At the time, the Penobscot was basically an open sewer. It was Sen. Edmund Muskie’s landmark clean water legislation that eventually led to much-improved water quality: Surely the salmon would return to the Penobscot. They didn’t. Stop the log drives and they will return. They didn’t. Tear out the dams and they will return. They haven’t. In 1978 the salmon count in the Penobscot was 1,100 fish. In 2014 it was 253. This year it will be less than 1,500.

So, why haven’t the salmon returned? That is the $64,000 question. My assumption is that at least part of the answer is increased predation. Seals love fresh salmon and their population has exploded (lobstermen used to shoot seals; not anymore). Cormorants, once so few in number they were listed as endangered, now wait en masse along waterways to feast on juvenile salmon as they journey to the sea. And, off-shore, trawlers tow giant nets scooping all living things from the ocean depths (where salmon live most of their lives).

Meanwhile, every year, thousands of salmon smolts are stocked in the Penobscot and other Maine rivers in hope that one day the salmon will return. Maybe building a new dam would help.

Randall Poulton is a columnist for The Republican Journal. He lives in Winterport.

 

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