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CMP presses transmission upgrade plan

Central Maine Power Co. is renewing its push to win approval for a controversial $1.5 billion upgrade to its transmission system, arguing that failure to move ahead soon will cost Maine jobs and money and make the state more vulnerable to blackouts. ...The PUC staff concluded that electricity use fell sharply during the recession and won't return to levels CMP was projecting for 2007 until 2018.

Facing a state panel's questions, the utility says failure to proceed will cost jobs and raise the chance of blackouts.

Central Maine Power Co. is renewing its push to win approval for a controversial $1.5 billion upgrade to its transmission system, arguing that failure to move ahead soon will cost Maine jobs and money and make the state more vulnerable to blackouts.

The utility began ramping up its publicity campaign Wednesday, at the start of four days of questioning in the case before the Maine Public Utilities Commission.

In October, the PUC's staff released an advisory report that said Maine could have a reliable electricity grid for much less money, and with far fewer transmission towers, than CMP is proposing. In daylong "technical conferences" that started Wednesday, CMP is formally rebutting the staff's findings.

CMP calls its plan the Maine Power Reliability Program.

It argues that anything less will delay transmission upgrades that are needed now, and put customers at risk of paying more for an inadequate system. It also asserts that Maine's goals of reducing its dependence on petroleum and hosting more renewable energy development could be limited.

"We want folks to... more [truncated due to possible copyright]  

Facing a state panel's questions, the utility says failure to proceed will cost jobs and raise the chance of blackouts.

Central Maine Power Co. is renewing its push to win approval for a controversial $1.5 billion upgrade to its transmission system, arguing that failure to move ahead soon will cost Maine jobs and money and make the state more vulnerable to blackouts.

The utility began ramping up its publicity campaign Wednesday, at the start of four days of questioning in the case before the Maine Public Utilities Commission.

In October, the PUC's staff released an advisory report that said Maine could have a reliable electricity grid for much less money, and with far fewer transmission towers, than CMP is proposing. In daylong "technical conferences" that started Wednesday, CMP is formally rebutting the staff's findings.

CMP calls its plan the Maine Power Reliability Program.

It argues that anything less will delay transmission upgrades that are needed now, and put customers at risk of paying more for an inadequate system. It also asserts that Maine's goals of reducing its dependence on petroleum and hosting more renewable energy development could be limited.

"We want folks to know that we are right, and to create some sense of urgency," said John Carroll, a CMP spokesman.

At issue is how much power planners think will be needed to keep the grid reliable during peak demand periods and under various circumstances. The calculations, called "load forecasts," form the basis for how big a project should be and when it should be built.

The PUC staff concluded that electricity use fell sharply during the recession and won't return to levels CMP was projecting for 2007 until 2018. It also disputed the scenarios that CMP used to project what would happen if certain power plants went off line.

The PUC staff, as a matter of practice, has declined to comment publicly about an ongoing legal case.

In its rebuttal, CMP says it followed mandatory industry planning standards to arrive at the design solution. The process took years, was reviewed by utility experts and had feedback from interest groups, including the PUC.

CMP also disputes the idea that falling power demand offsets the need for a major transmission upgrade. Maine wants to cut oil dependence. The state is trying to position itself as a leader in offshore wind power and is creating rules for energy corridors from Canada. Renewable energy might some day fuel electric cars and heat homes, the company points out.

"The infrastructure you need to make that work is the grid," Carroll said. "You can't get off oil with a 40-year-old transmission system."

CMP and its Spanish parent company, Iberdrola, have a lot riding on the project. So do contractors, ratepayers and Maine residents.

The project would upgrade an aging network running from Orrington to the New Hampshire border with 350 miles of new or rebuilt lines, new substations and other equipment. Thousands of construction workers would be needed, making it one of the largest energy projects in state history. The project has strong support from Gov. John Baldacci and business interests.

Transmission projects receive an attractive rate of return set by the federal government. If the project is approved as designed, CMP stands to increase its net income by $100 million a year.

The project's design has the blessing of the region's grid operator, ISO New England. That means the $1.5 billion cost would be shared by ratepayers across six states, with Maine residents paying 8.3 percent.

If the project isn't built to the agreed-upon standards, CMP warns, ISO might not allow the cost to be spread around, and Mainers could pay a larger share in their electricity bills.

To make its point, CMP cites a draft determination by ISO that says that the project meets its cost-sharing criteria, and that any big changes would require a new review. CMP says that would delay a project that's "shovel ready" and already behind schedule.

ISO's position will be scrutinized by parties in the case. Under Maine law, utility projects must be proven to meet a public need.

"There is a clash of jurisdictions here," said Eric Bryant, senior counsel in the Maine Public Advocate's Office.

The position taken by the PUC staff represents the first time ISO New England's planning standards have been challenged, Bryant said. For the most part, his office supports the findings of the PUC staff.

Another party in the case said southern New England and Canada - not Maine - would be the long-term beneficiaries of CMP's project.

Rich Silkman, a partner in Competitive Energy Services in Portland, said Hydro Quebec's recent plans to buy New Brunswick Power would let it export cheap electricity to Boston, pricing Maine generators out of the market.

Silkman is promoting an alternative to CMP's project called Grid Solar, which would use fields of solar panels to generate power on hot summer days, when demand is highest. The power could reduce the need for expensive transmission line upgrades, although under the current ISO rules, the cost wouldn't be shared among ratepayers in the region.

In a separate case last month, the PUC commissioners ruled that Grid Solar doesn't qualify as a transmission and distribution company. CMP applauded the decision, saying it would limit Grid Solar's ability to attract investors. Silkman said his project remains viable, if the PUC rejects CMP's proposal.

To coincide with its rebuttal testimony, CMP is meeting with newspaper editorial writers and other opinion makers to underscore the need for the project.

CMP has hired key government insiders to help advance its position, including Kay Rand, who was chief of staff for Gov. Angus King; Larry Benoit, who has decades of experience with Maine's congressional delegation; and Thomas Welch, a Portland lawyer who chaired the PUC from 1993 to 2005 and was an architect of electricity industry restructuring.

CMP also is in settlement talks outside the PUC legal forum with parties in the case. CMP hopes those confidential talks will lead to a quicker agreement to proceed with some form of transmission upgrade.

Barring a settlement, the commissioners are scheduled to decide the case in May.


Source: http://pressherald.mainetod...

DEC 17 2009
http://www.windaction.org/posts/23691-cmp-presses-transmission-upgrade-plan
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