Solar panels tied to smart meters could feed electricity into the power grid, low-income residents could get $2.7 million to weatherize homes and a special ombudsman could help landowners resolve power line disputes.

These and other measures are included in an innovative settlement agreement being signed today by Central Maine Power Co. and parties involved in the utility’s landmark transmission project case before the Maine Public Utilities Commission.

In exchange for funding energy efficiency programs and making other concessions, CMP could begin work, as early as this summer, on upgrading its aging, high-voltage network that runs 350 miles from Orrington to the New Hampshire border.

The Public Utilities Commission, which must approve the settlement, has set a deliberations meeting for May 14.

Named the Maine Power Reliability Project, the $1.4 billion proposal is considered the largest transmission project ever proposed in Maine. More than 2,000 jobs are being projected over four years. It’s also a major windfall for CMP, which makes money by building and operating transmission lines.

Some opponents, as well as staff experts at the PUC, had recommended scaling back the project and cutting its cost to $1 billion. That idea was mostly rejected in the pending deal. If the settlement is accepted, CMP will get to build much of what it proposed when the case began two years ago. The utility has maintained that the upgrade is needed to assure reliable electric service and serve proposed wind power projects in western and northern Maine.

But CMP’s agreement to fund million of dollars in energy efficiency programs, as well as embracing new technology that can cut peak demand for power use, creates conditions to control rates in the years ahead, according to Richard Davies, the state’s Public Advocate and a key party in the case.

“In the future, building new transmission won’t be the answer to all our problems,” Davies said.

CMP issued a release Friday afternoon saying the project would ensure reliability for years to come, encourage renewable energy development and and allow for a quick start for construction.

“The parties to the stipulation (agreement) believe that approval by the MPUC will provide substantial and lasting benefits to Maine,” the company said.

Because transmission project costs are shared throughout New England, Maine customers would pay 8 percent of the bill
The negotiated settlement was signed in Augusta by CMP and roughly two dozen parties that included state officials, utilities, contractors, power generators and even a local birding club.

The settlement does scale down some aspects of the original plan. Transmission upgrades in the Rockland and Lewiston areas are eliminated, as well as some equipment planned for the Cumberland/Yarmouth area.

The parties also agree to help develop a power grid that uses sophisticated meters and communications systems to monitor electric use and manage it with strategically-placed solar arrays, other local generators and real-time conservation actions. This approach is known as smart grid technology.

CMP has agreed to work with Portland-based Grid Solar on two pilot projects, one in the Portland area; the other in the Midcoast. Grid Solar is promoting a concept of using solar panels to meet demand spikes on hot days. The solar output would be backed up with other forms of generation and “demand response,” such as factories shutting down unneeded equipment or homes automatically turning off air conditioners.

CMP’s project drew opposition from many residents living near the power corridor. As part of the settlement, CMP agreed to hire an ombudsman to work with landowners during the construction phase. It also agrees to take reasonable steps to limit the output of electromagnetic fields associated with high-voltage lines, consistent with the recommendations of the World Health Organization.

In addition to funding annual low-income weatherization, CMP agreed to pay $2.6 million in 2012, and $500,000 a year for nine years, for efficiency projects at factories and that save the most money per dollar.

An additional $900,000 in 2012, and $700,000 a year for nine years, would go to energy efficiency projects identified by Efficiency Maine Trust.

It also will pay $1.5 million to help the Public Advocate and other parties participate in regional transmission planning.
CMP has agreed not to try to recover any of this spending in customer rates.

The three PUC commissioners will consider the settlement next Friday. They can accept, modify or reject the deal. If they reject it, a formal deliberation on the initial case is set for May 26.