Central Maine Power Co. should be allowed to upgrade the core of its high-voltage transmission system from the Bangor area to the New Hampshire border, but not various spurs around the state, experts at the Public Utilities Commission are recommending in a much-anticipated report.

The scaled-back approach could cut the project’s cost from $1.5 billion to $1 billion, saving ratepayers money while maintaining reliable electric service and accommodating development of renewable energy, the report says.

Reliability could be provided by alternatives to some new facilities, the report says, such as smart-grid technologies and perhaps the solar panel concept being promoted by Portland-based Grid Solar.

Those and other recommendations are in the report made available over the weekend by PUC lawyers overseeing CMP’s case. The so-called hearing examiners’ report serves as an in-house opinion to help the three commissioners decide whether to approve CMP’s project as requested.

The commissioners aren’t bound by the recommendations, compiled by Charles Cohen and Lisa Fink, the two hearing examiners. But their 145-page report does distill the staff’s thinking about a case that has dragged on for nearly two years and amassed many thousands of pages of testimony, maps and data.

Parties in the case have until May 7 to file comments. The commissioners are scheduled to deliberate the case May 25.

CMP wants to start work this summer. The utility declined Monday to discuss details of the case, but issued a statement noting that the report acknowledges substantial upgrades are needed. It also warned of further delays and the possible loss of favorable rates for customers, unless the full project is built.

The state official representing consumers in the case had a differing view. The recommendations may provide the framework for a good compromise, said Richard Davies, the state’s public advocate.

“It would save ratepayers $40 million while still providing reliability for our electric system,” Davies said Monday.

The recommendations also won initial support from the Conservation Law Foundation. Offsetting new power lines with clean energy generated in Maine seems like a responsible balance, said Greg Cunningham, an attorney with the group.

CMP’s Maine Power Reliability Project is the largest transmission project ever proposed in Maine, and perhaps New England.

CMP wants to upgrade the aging network that runs 350 miles 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.

Thousands of workers would be needed for the project, and that has led the construction industry, civic leaders and Gov. John Baldacci to lobby for it.

But the scale and scope have made the plan controversial. There are 182 formal intervenors, including environmental groups and residents who live near the corridor.

CMP wants to build a new set of 345-kilovolt towers, like the large metal structures visible from Interstate 95 and other roads. It also wants to rebuild many miles of power lines and add substations, transformers and other equipment.

The project’s size is based on CMP’s projections for electricity demand and the power plants available to provide it.

In making their recommendations, the PUC hearing examiners rejected many of those assumptions as unrealistic, too stringent and too expensive.

They relied on consultants and other technical experts, who challenged forecasts and design standards used by CMP and ISO-New England, the regional grid’s operator.

The cost of transmission projects in the region is shared by ratepayers in six states. The hearing examiners said transmission investment grew from $1.8 billion in 1999 to $5 billion in 2008. It’s expected to reach $8.6 billion in 2013.

“Accordingly,” they wrote, “the rates paid by Maine consumers for regionally funded transmission have increased several hundred percent in recent years.”

To cut costs while meeting future power needs, the report suggests rebuilding the system’s high-voltage “backbone,” but holding off on various proposed spurs, including new lines and towers through areas that include Camden-Rockland, Lewiston and Yarmouth.

Proposed upgrades into western Maine, where new wind power projects are proposed, need further study.

Reliability could be improved in some areas, including South Portland and the midcoast, with alternatives that reduce power use, such as energy efficiency.

Smart-grid technology, such as Grid Solar’s concept of using solar electric panels to meet demand spikes on hot days, could also play a role, the report says.

The hearing examiners stopped short of recommending Grid Solar. They said the concept needs further development and testing, and said CMP should study a pilot plan for alternatives.

Rich Silkman, a principal in Grid Solar, said Monday he was encouraged that the staff saw the merits of non-transmission alternatives, but disappointed that CMP was assigned to identify the options.

“That, for me, was fundamentally wrong,” he said. “CMP has no incentive to do that.”

Silkman and other parties in the case have been trying to negotiate an outside deal with CMP. Details of the talks are confidential, but participants say a settlement could reduce the risk of a legal appeal in the hotly contested case.

The examiners’ report is likely to influence those efforts, which are continuing this week.

If the recommendations in the examiner’s report are adopted by the PUC and acceptable to CMP and intervenors, the compromise also will have to be supported by ISO-New England for regional cost-sharing.

 

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