Central Maine Power Co. has reached an agreement in principle to settle the landmark transmission line case that’s now before Maine’s Public Utilities Commission, according to documents made available Wednesday.

The tentative agreement, which remains confidential, indicates that CMP is willing to move forward with a scaled-back project that will cost less than $1.5 billion.

The deal could allow CMP to begin work this summer on its high-voltage network, a project that it says will ensure a reliable power supply and create hundreds of construction jobs. It’s also expected to save ratepayers money, and may introduce innovative grid-management techniques such as using solar panels and energy efficiency to reduce the need for additional transmission lines.

Any final settlement in the two-year case must be signed by key parties and accepted by the PUC. A meeting that will include CMP, the Maine Public Advocate’s Office, the Industrial Energy Consumers Group, the Conservation Law Foundation and Grid Solar is scheduled for today.

CMP declined to comment on the draft until a settlement is finalized and filed with the PUC.

CMP’s proposal, the 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, building a new set of 345-kilovolt towers, like the large wooden structures visible from Interstate 295 north of Topsham. The company also wants to rebuild many miles of existing power lines and add substations, transformers and other equipment.

The project’s size has been based on CMP’s projections of future demand for electricity and the power plants that are expected to be available to provide it. But the scale and scope have made the plan controversial, attracting 182 formal intervenors who wanted a say in the PUC case, including environmental groups and residents who live near the lines.

The argument for something smaller gained traction late last month after a report was issued by staff experts at the PUC. The report concluded that CMP should be allowed to upgrade the “backbone” of its transmission system, but not various spurs around the state.

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

After the report was issued, CMP and key intervenors stepped up their discussions to settle the case outside the PUC’s formal framework. Over the past day or so, attempts have been made to bring other parties, such as contractors, power plant owners and residents, into the settlement. Today’s meeting will culminate those efforts.

Although the details are still confidential, the settlement would have multiple benefits, said Richard Davies, the state’s public advocate. It would create a less costly way for Maine to have a reliable electricity grid and would quickly trigger the economic effects of a major construction project.

The settlement would include a provision for CMP to fund various energy-efficiency activities in homes and businesses. Another provision, Davies said, would endorse Grid Solar’s concept of using solar electric panels to meet demand on hot, high-demand days, and local alternatives to building new power lines in South Portland and the midcoast.

Those and other provisions would put Maine on track to be a model for other states, said Greg Cunningham, an attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation. They would meet reliability needs while cutting energy consumption and furthering the development of clean, renewable power, he said.

“There is real vision here; it’s not a business-as-usual solution,” Cunningham said.

If the settlement is finalized, parties in the case will be allowed to file comments until Tuesday. The PUC would hold a hearing Wednesday, and the three commissioners would deliberate the settlement May 25.

The commission isn’t bound by what CMP and the parties have worked out, and could modify the terms. But it would be highly unusual, Davies said, for a broadly endorsed settlement to be rejected.

CMP still needs some state, local and federal permits, and may be challenged by environmental activists over wetlands issues.

 

Staff Writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at:

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