After nearly two years of study and debate, Central Maine Power Co.’s bid to rebuild its transmission system will reach a key milestone this week, when the staff of the Maine Public Utilities Commission weighs in on the need for the $1.6 billion project.

The so-called hearing examiner’s report is scheduled to be released as soon as Wednesday. It will serve as a professional, in-house opinion to help the three commissioners decide whether to approve CMP’s project as requested.

The upgrade, called the Maine Power Reliability Program, would be among the largest energy projects in state history. The commissioners are expected to rule on the case in mid-May. CMP wants to start work this summer.

Meanwhile, parties to the case are stepping up efforts to negotiate an outside deal with CMP, similar to an out-of-court settlement. Details of these talks are confidential, but participants say a settlement could reduce the risk of a legal appeal in the hotly contested case.

CMP wants to upgrade its aging network, which runs from Orrington to the New Hampshire border.

Failure to move ahead soon will cost Maine jobs and money and make the state more vulnerable to blackouts, the utility says. The need for thousands of workers has led the construction industry, civic leaders and Gov. John Baldacci to lobby for the project.

But the scale and scope of the project have made it controversial, attracting more than 100 intervenors.

Opponents, including environmental groups and residents of communities near the corridor, point to the findings of a PUC staff analysis released last fall. It concluded CMP was overstating future power demand. It said that Maine could have a reliable power grid for much less money and far fewer transmission towers than what CMP is proposing.

Parties in the case are waiting to see if the hearing examiner’s report builds on that theme or finds that CMP has assembled compelling evidence to justify its request. Either way, the report is nonbinding, but it carries weight with the commissioners.

“These are the people closest to the case who have dealt with the mass of material generated,” said Richard Davies, the state’s public advocate.

The Public Advocate’s Office has drawn up a settlement plan reflecting the view that CMP’s project should be scaled down. It also wants alternatives that reduce power use, such as energy efficiency and smart-grid technology, and a proposal to use solar electric panels to meet demand spikes on hot days.

Davies’ office has been trying to fashion a compromise with parties that include the Conservation Law Foundation, the Industrial Energy Consumer Group and Grid Solar, the Portland company advancing the solar panel plan.

These groups are circulating a draft proposal that they hope to present this week to CMP. The goal is to find a middle ground that satisfies CMP and many of the intervenors and would be acceptable to the PUC. That won’t be easy, according to one of the negotiators.

“It puts the commission in a very tough place,” said Tony Buxton, a lawyer who represents paper mills and other manufacturers.

On one hand, Buxton said, electricity demand fell sharply during the recession. Some experts believe that increasing efficiency and other factors will keep demand below CMP’s projections for many years.

On the other hand, he said, grid reliability depends on a number of factors, and regulators want to be conservative.

But it’s important, Buxton said, that the PUC make a decision that promotes conservation, smart-grid technology and renewable energy development.

“That’s the future that we don’t want to throw away by building too much transmission,” he said.

It’s unclear how CMP will react to a new settlement proposal. Last year, the utility appeared more eager to speed up the process and perhaps gain the certainty to move ahead.

“We’re very close to the end of the case, so a settlement has less value now,” said John Carroll, a CMP spokesman.

Aside from the PUC’s go-ahead, CMP still needs final approval from state environmental regulators and some local permits. Also pending is a wetlands permit from the Army Corps of Engineers, which is expected to be contested by the Sierra Club.

Carroll declined to say whether CMP would consider a scaled-down project, but he said it will continue to negotiate with the parties seeking a settlement.

Intervenors in the case will have until the end of the month to file comments with the PUC on the hearing examiner’s report.

 

Staff Writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at: [email protected]