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Maine utility says solar a viable option for peak use

Acres of solar-electric panels installed near communities that use lots of power in the summer could be an alternative to a controversial and costly upgrade of the transmission system in southern and central Maine, a Portland-based energy company is asserting. GridSolar LLC suggests erecting solar panels in 25-acre fields, initially around the midcoast and Lewiston-Auburn. The locations would coincide with areas that Central Maine Power Co. has identified as being most prone to future blackouts and reliability problems, GridSolar said.

PORTLAND, MAINE: Acres of solar-electric panels installed near communities that use lots of power in the summer could be an alternative to a controversial and costly upgrade of the transmission system in southern and central Maine, a Portland-based energy company is asserting.

GridSolar LLC suggests erecting solar panels in 25-acre fields, initially around the midcoast and Lewiston-Auburn. The locations would coincide with areas that Central Maine Power Co. has identified as being most prone to future blackouts and reliability problems, GridSolar said.

These solar arrays wouldn't be designed to export large amounts of energy all year long, like the mega-projects coming online in California and Nevada. Rather, the Maine projects would fill in local power-supply gaps on summer days, when the sun's rays are strongest and when homes and businesses are cranking up air conditioners.

The solar electricity generated during these periods also would help lower future electric rates for residential customers, the company says.

Details of the GridSolar proposal are contained in new filings at the Maine Public Utilities Commission. They will become part of a complex case before regulators, who are... more [truncated due to possible copyright]  

PORTLAND, MAINE: Acres of solar-electric panels installed near communities that use lots of power in the summer could be an alternative to a controversial and costly upgrade of the transmission system in southern and central Maine, a Portland-based energy company is asserting.

GridSolar LLC suggests erecting solar panels in 25-acre fields, initially around the midcoast and Lewiston-Auburn. The locations would coincide with areas that Central Maine Power Co. has identified as being most prone to future blackouts and reliability problems, GridSolar said.

These solar arrays wouldn't be designed to export large amounts of energy all year long, like the mega-projects coming online in California and Nevada. Rather, the Maine projects would fill in local power-supply gaps on summer days, when the sun's rays are strongest and when homes and businesses are cranking up air conditioners.

The solar electricity generated during these periods also would help lower future electric rates for residential customers, the company says.

Details of the GridSolar proposal are contained in new filings at the Maine Public Utilities Commission. They will become part of a complex case before regulators, who are considering a $1.4 billion transmission upgrade project called the Maine Power Reliability Program.

CMP, which is promoting the transmission upgrade, has said power disruptions could happen along its aging system by 2012 if nothing is done to modernize the high-voltage lines and towers that carry electricity through the state. If approved, the upgrade would trigger one of the largest construction projects in Maine, creating thousands of jobs.

But residents who live along the transmission corridors, along with other opponents, have intervened in the case. They question whether all the expansion CMP has proposed is really needed.

GridSolar's proposal is far outside the realm of conventional thinking for power planning in New England, so it's too early to say how the filing will influence the debate. Questions ranging from how the company would finance its venture to whether Maine has sufficient sunshine to support the planned power output are bound to emerge.

The company met recently with legislative leaders, Gov. John Baldacci and some top aides to introduce the concept.

The idea is intriguing, said Richard Davies, the state's public advocate. But Davies also said he has many questions about whether the idea is practical and can achieve its goals.

"I do take the proposal seriously," Davies said. "It's good to have people thinking about audacious things. We're not going to solve our energy problems by doing the same old things."

For its part, CMP said it studied local generation alternatives, such as natural gas turbines, during the planning stages of the project. The concept may work in select areas, said John Carroll, a CMP spokesman. But overall, he said, the proposed transmission upgrade is the most economical and reliable option for customers.

Still, GridSolar has added an unusual and unexpected dimension to debate over how Maine can have sufficient power in the next decade, while reducing its dependence on oil and natural gas.

CMP's plan follows the time-tested approach of designing a transmission system to handle electricity from remote power plants. GridSolar, by contrast, would use small-scale generators close to where the electric load is, a technique called distributed generation. Most of the power would come from solar panels, although propane-fired turbines would provide backup on cloudy days. Businesses also would shut off unneeded equipment when demand is extremely high.

"Our GridSolar project represents a fundamentally different vision of the electricity grid from that held by utilities in this country," said Richard Silkman, a partner at Competitive Energy Services in Portland and a managing member of GridSolar LLC.

A former state planning director, Silkman runs a company that represents large power buyers in energy contracts. It also has developed a small wind turbine project in Freedom. His partner, Mark Issacson, is part-owner of a hydroelectric dam in Lisbon Falls. Both men have extensive experience in the energy industry, but not with solar power or running a transmission and distribution utility.

Silkman and Issacson decided to offer a competing proposal to CMP's transmission project after examining some key assumptions.

They note that peak electricity demand in Maine has shifted away from manufacturing to the service and health care sectors, and is strongest during business hours on humid summer days. Using CMP's data, the men calculated that reliability is threatened on fewer than 10 percent of all hours during the year. Those hours coincided with times when sunshine is greatest, making solar a good match.

"CMP wants to spend $1.4 billion to meet load demands on 850 hours a year," Silkman said. "That didn't make sense to us."

GridSolar is proposing to spend the same amount of money to build a total of 800 megawatts of solar generation, roughly the output of the former Maine Yankee nuclear plant in Wiscasset. Construction would be phased in over several years to keep pace with demand.

The initial outlay of $400 million or so would support 100 megawatts, probably in the midcoast or Lewiston-Auburn areas. Later installations would be around Portland, Bangor, central Maine and Down East. In its filings, GridSolar presents photos of solar arrays in Germany, which it said most closely resemble what's envisioned for Maine. A 25-acre site could accommodate enough panels to generate roughly two megawatts.

Ratepayers would see an added benefit to this approach, GridSolar says.

Because there's no fuel cost with solar generation, power would be put into the grid at a fixed price, rather than prices that fluctuate with the energy markets. GridSolar would contract with the PUC to sell solar power at 3 cents per kilowatt hour for 20 years, roughly one-third the cost of standard electricity generated using natural gas and oil. At today's price for power supplied to homeowners, the savings would approach $60 million a year, the company says.

Solar electricity also would lower emissions of gases associated with climate change. The full project would have the effect of taking 100,000 cars off the road, the company estimates.

GridSolar's proposal is sure to draw both skepticism and support in the coming months as intervenors in the case file rebuttal statements. The PUC may decide the case by summer.

"The PUC is going to have to decide between two different visions," Silkman said.


Source: http://www.energycurrent.co...

FEB 3 2009
http://www.windaction.org/posts/18891-maine-utility-says-solar-a-viable-option-for-peak-use
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