A buyout of Central Maine Power (CMP) and its fellow power distributor Versant by a consumer-owned utility is about to come back up before the Maine legislature, thanks to the persistence of Rep. Seth Berry. The timing couldn’t be better: CMP has just earned yet another shoot-yourself-in-the-foot award for its handling of new solar connections to Maine’s electricity grid.
Unfortunately, CMP’s latest antics can’t merely be written off as slapstick comedy. Converting power generation quickly and painlessly to clean solar, wind and battery storage is possible only if the builders of renewable capacity have a competent and cooperative partner managing the wires that move electricity in and out of homes and businesses.
CMP, owner of the biggest power grid in Maine, has proven yet again that it will never be that helpful partner. On the contrary, this investor-owned utility poses a clear and present danger to our state, local, and individual efforts to reverse the carbon buildup that threatens our planet.
In early February, the Portland Press Herald disclosed that CMP had just told companies building solar projects around the state that they might have to pay several times more -- millions of additional dollars -- to hook into the grid than the estimates CMP gave them when they were at the project-planning stage. It seems CMP hadn’t realized how much upgrading its network would need to accommodate the new solar or how much that upgrading would cost. Really?
“A major screw-up” was the reaction of the Maine Renewable Energy Association. Perhaps concerned that her climate goals were at risk, Gov. Janet Mills – a vital supporter of CMP’s controversial power transmission corridor through Western Maine – wrote to the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) expressing “dismay” at CMP’s late increase in connection charges and asking for an investigation.
Just one day later, CMP flipped yet again. It wouldn’t need to increase charges to solar developers after all, CMP told the PUC. It was just a mistake resulting from a sudden jump in applications for solar projects. In fact, connection charges might be lower, not higher, than it had originally indicated. Its executive chairman told the legislature’s Joint Committee on Energy, Utilities and Technology, co-chaired by Berry, that some “midlevel engineers” had sent out the higher-connection-cost notices without checking first with higher-ups in the company. Really?
CMP’s parent, Avangrid, describes itself as “a leading, sustainable energy company with approximately $36 billion in assets and operations in 24 US states with two lines of business: Avangrid Networks and Avangrid Renewables.” Sounds like the sort of company that would know how much it costs to hook new renewables projects into the network. Avangrid’s majority owner, Spanish utility giant Iberdrola, describes itself as “the world leader in renewables.”
You’d think CMP’s apparent difficulty in figuring out how much it costs to hook small solar developments into the grid would be embarrassing to those self-proclaimed leaders in green energy – maybe even embarrassing enough that they wouldn’t want to spend millions on advertising and lawyers to keep Maine’s citizens from buying out CMP. But then, you might have thought they would have been embarrassed about the earlier debacle resulting from billing errors when CMP installed a new, not-all-that-intelligent “smart” billing system.
What Berry and the Our Power group he works with are proposing is to create a non-profit utility called Pine Tree Power Company to replace CMP and Versant. Pine Tree Power would borrow at low-interest rates, which come with its public status and guaranteed income, to pay CMP and Versant for their poles and wire, using no tax money or state bonds. It would be overseen by a customer-elected board.
The new consumer-owned utility could then upgrade the system to handle the all-renewable-electric economy Maine needs and to make Maine’s electricity reliable – something all of us who have experienced repeated outages can testify CMP and Versant have failed to do.
This isn’t some issue of importance only in Portland and Augusta. Projects such as the one taking shape on and near the Owl’s Head Airport, from which the town of Camden hopes to buy clean power, will need a CMP connection. Anyone wanting to put solar panels on their house needs a CMP connection. Many of us have signed up for Community Solar projects that need connections.
Our own representative for Camden and Rockport, Vicki Doudera, supported the consumer-owned utility bill in the last legislature. Doudera says she is "still in favor of the concept, although I will need to read and study the latest version of the bill when it becomes available." Hopefully she will decide to support Berry’s bill, with solid support from our community. If, despite all this, the consumer-owned power bill does not pass this year, we should join a campaign to put the concept to a public vote in 2022.