Central Maine Power trucks and crews respond at the scene of a broken telephone pole in 2014. Credit: Courtesy of Ashley Messner

Central Maine Power wants ratepayers to invest $200 million or more in Portland-area electricity infrastructure. But some lawmakers and the state’s utility watchdog say the company is underestimating the potential for alternatives that could be much cheaper, and much better for the environment.

In a recent letter to state regulators, CMP said it needs to improve grid reliability in the Portland area to meet projected electricity demand in 2025. It proposes spending $214 million on 32 miles of new power lines and to upgrade eight substations. It also acknowledges that it could shave about $16 million from the bill through unspecified “nontransmission alternatives.”

“I personally had my breath taken away when I saw the disproportionate amount,” said Barry Hobbins, the state’s public advocate.

Hobbins said CMP is lowballing the alternatives and relying too heavily on the costly infrastructure needed to send bulk power long distances, often from polluting generators. He wants more emphasis on reducing demand on the regional grid through the use of localized resources such as solar power, grid-scale batteries, energy efficiency and high-tech load management.

Hobbins said recent experience with a “smart-grid” pilot project in Boothbay demonstrates that such efforts can avert the need for investing tens of millions of dollars on poles and wires.

“Remember, Central Maine Power Co. makes their money when you build things, because they get a guaranteed rate of return,” he said.

That guaranteed rate of return can be 10 percent or more, which Hobbins and other stakeholders say gives utilities a disincentive to push alternatives that would reduce costs — and profits.

CMP turned down several requests for comment, and its detailed filing on the proposal has been termed confidential because it includes information about critical infrastructure that could pose a security threat if released.

Recently, staff at the state Public Utilities Commission recommended creation of a new position — a “smart grid coordinator” — to weigh in on nontransmission alternatives submitted by the utilities and by third-party vendors. But the PUC’s three-member board overruled the staff, instead giving the utilities the lead in proposing alternatives.

“It’s essentially putting the fox in charge of the henhouse. It makes no sense at all,” said state Rep. Seth Berry of Bowdoinham, who co-chairs the joint committee on energy, utilities and technology.

Berry said lawmakers are considering ways to change the way these decisions are evaluated.

“What the Legislature is looking at doing is creating a more robust smart-grid coordinator, as originally envisioned, and insisting that the PUC go back to the drawing board and inject competition into the system,” he said.

It’s unclear whether a bill will emerge this year that would force change. Stakeholders, including the public advocate, utilities, environmentalists, lawmakers and big energy users, may meet over the next year and make a recommendation to the next Legislature.

Steven McGrath, director of Gov. Paul LePage’s energy office, said the governor supports reducing electricity bills, but he declined to comment on the pending legislation or specifics of the CMP proposal.

This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.

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