HARPSWELL — In a ditch, half-hidden in weeds, is a remnant of the storm Mainers won’t soon forget. It’s a cut-up utility pole, one of hundreds that were destroyed in the October 2017 wind and rain storm that left a record 470,000 customers in the dark.

“That pole snapped, broke in two,” said Gordon Weil, who lives at the end of a narrow, woodsy lane and gets electrical service via the pole. “And the wire sat on the ground for 10 days.”

Weil’s house was among the last in Maine to get power restored, and when crews working for Central Maine Power replaced the broken pole, they made an important improvement. The new pole has a larger circumference than the old one in the weeds. It’s designed to handle a heavier load. It also has a wooden side-support anchored in the ground to stabilize the structure, which also carries phone and cable lines.

Stouter utility poles are one feature likely to be highlighted in a plan announced last month by CMP’s parent company, Avangrid, to reduce the cost and frequency of storm-related power outages.

Avangrid is pursuing a $2.5 billion effort to beef up its distribution system over the next 10 years in Maine and New York. Storm damage and recovery over the last 16 months in the two states and Connecticut, where Avangrid is headquartered, have cost more than $450 million. And as a changing climate fuels storms that are more frequent and intense, the company said, it needs to harden its electric grid to maintain reliable service.

Over the next few months, Avangrid will zero in on exactly where upgrades should take place in each state and how much they will cost. Besides stronger poles, measures may include more-aggressive tree trimming, greater use of a special coated wire that resists falling branches and putting more portions of the system underground. Also being considered are emerging technologies such as microgrids, which involve small service areas with their own power supplies that can keep energy flowing when the wider system goes down.

Avangrid said it will release specific details this fall for its plan, called Transforming Energy. For Avangrid to go forward, the Maine Public Utilities Commission will have to find that the level of investment and the strategies selected are reasonable and should be recovered over time in customer bills.

“You have to have a varied approach,” said Michael West, a spokesman for Avangrid. “No one solution will fit all.”

A pole with a transformer attached lies on Flying Point Road in Freeport on Nov. 3, 2017, days after a severe windstorm knocked out electricity to hundreds of thousands of customers across the state. Staff file photo by Gregory Rec

HEIGHTENED SCRUTINY

But it’s already clear that Avangrid’s plan will face hurdles.

The PUC is in the midst of investigating how the state’s power companies responded to the October storm. Many residents and some politicians have criticized CMP for taking too long and for downplaying problems with an online portal meant to show when power was restored. CMP has calculated that recovering from the storm cost $69 million. If regulators agree the spending was justified, customers will pick up much of the tab over several years.

At the same time, the PUC is conducting a probe into what caused bills to spike for thousands of customers last winter, hundreds of ratepayers are seeking a class-action lawsuit over the issue, and the PUC has begun a separate inquiry into whether CMP is overcharging customers.

Taken together, these and other events are fomenting a growing public mistrust and skepticism about the motivations of CMP/Avangrid, and to what degree they could raise electric bills.

Barry Hobbins, the state’s consumer watchdog, said that with Avangrid’s ongoing problems with its current infrastructure and business management, the company should step back and get input from other stakeholders, before charging ahead with a costly new venture.

“It is my opinion,” Hobbins, Maine’s public advocate, said, “that they need to ‘get their act together’ before they even consider putting more future, long-term financial obligations on the backs of Maine ratepayers.”

The plan also may come under scrutiny in the Legislature, specifically by Democrats. Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, immediately criticized Avangrid’s proposal last month as continuing to favor a centralized electric system over microgrids and distributed generation, in which batteries, fuel cells, solar panels and other alternatives supply power closer to where it’s being consumed.

In Maine, a microgrid at the former Brunswick Naval Air Station is being developed to tap a large solar farm and methane gas digester and to power industrial and commercial space. A small microgrid is trying to get up and running on Isle au Haut, six miles off the coast of Stonington. In Connecticut, an Avangrid affiliate has built a microgrid that can power the town of Woodbridge’s public safety buildings, aided by a $3 million state grant.

In a follow-up interview, Berry, who co-chairs the legislative committee that handles energy and utility matters, acknowledged that microgrids are expensive and won’t help residents on far-flung roads, such as the one Weil lives on.

“The larger point,” he said, “is that CMP/Avangrid came out with a proposal that they want to make the grid more reliable. But there’s no detail and, to be clear, that generally means they want more money from ratepayers.”

In the absence of detail, these misgivings show the tension that’s building in Maine between the conficting desires to reduce storm-related blackouts and not to raise electric bills.

SEEING THE FOREST FOR THE TREES

In a place called the Pine Tree State, where more than 90 percent of the land is forested, the leading cause of storm-related outages isn’t a mystery. Trees falling on or touching the electric distribution system are responsible for 80 percent of problems, Avangrid estimates.

One solution is to install wire with a protective, insulated layer. Most electric wire spans are bare and vulnerable to falling branches or leaning trees. That can cause short circuits. In the past, CMP has run tree wire sparingly, because it’s up to four times more expensive. But that may be changing, under Avangrid’s new calculus.

More-expensive wire that reduces service calls can make long-term economic sense, said Weil, a former Maine public advocate and state energy director. Walking along his lane, Weil pointed up to the black, coated tree wire that CMP installed years ago, at his request. It runs from the new pole, past other neighbors, to his house, through a narrow right of way flanked by dense woods. It’s easy to see how the electric lines are at risk from wind-blown limbs or falling trees. Stringing more tree wire might make a difference in heavily wooded communities such as Harpswell, where most of the 5,000 or so residents live on three bridge-connected islands and a 10-mile long peninsula that reach like bony fingers into Casco Bay.

Gordon Weil walks along Firehouse Road on July 25 near a new utility pole that was replaced after storm broke an old one in Harpswell. Central Maine Power’s parent company is preparing a multi-million plan to harden its power distribution system against storms. Staff photo by Derek Davis

Harpswell’s power is fed from two substations in neighboring Brunswick, Weil said. If something happens between a substation and Harpswell, power to half the town goes down.

One solution Avangrid is expected to propose in Transforming Energy is shortening long, radial circuits, like the two feeding Harpswell. That way, if a tree falls on a power line halfway along the system, it doesn’t black out everyone on the circuit.

NATURAL CONFLICT

More than a decade ago, the PUC ordered CMP to increase its trim schedule for trees within power line rights of way to once every five years. That has reduced outages.

But after crunching recent data, Avangrid determined that half of the storm outages were triggered by trees outside the public right of way, where CMP isn’t authorized to prune branches.

There’s no easy answer to this problem, which is evident when driving from Brunswick to Weil’s road along Route 123. This is a narrow byway, with utility lines running along the sides and crossing the roadway here and there. The rights of way directly above and adjacent to the poles are trimmed. But many stretches are flanked by tall pine and spruce trees that can fall into the power corridor, if buffeted by wind or weighed down with heavy ice.

Gordon Weil stands by a new utility pole that was replaced after storm broke old one near his house in Harpswell. Central Maine Power’s parent company is preparing a multi-million plan to harden its power distribution system against storms. Staff photo by Derek Davis

One idea, Weil said, is to seek more cooperative agreements with landowners, which allow for trimming outside the right of way. That’s what he negotiated with CMP, so he can preserve trees desirable for privacy but also identify and prune so-called danger trees that become threatening.

There’s a natural conflict, he added, between living in a forested landscape and having reliable electrical service.

“It’s not realistic to expect urban, underground service,” he said. “But if you know something’s going to happen repeatedly, it’s a good idea to harden the system.”

Expectations aside, after the 1998 ice storm that took out power for days, Weil did what four of his eight neighbors have done – he installed a propane-fired generator.

FOCUS ON ACCOUNTABILITY

Efforts to harden the electrical system against storms in Maine and New York are part of a national trend that includes customer expectations of 24/7 power in the digital age and mounting cyber threats, according to Scott Aaronson, vice president of security and preparedness at the Edison Electric Institute. The industry trade group prepared a report in 2014 on best practices called Before and After the Storm that highlights general strategies, several of which are being proposed by Avangrid.

In terms of natural events, Aaronson said, the focus in the Northeast is on trees. In the West, it’s wildfires. In Florida, it’s hurricanes.

Investments in grid hardening can make a difference in storm recovery. In Florida, Aaronson said, it took 13 days to restore all power after Hurricane Wilma in 2005. Following a similar storm last year, Hurricane Irma, power was back in five days. Since 2005, he said, Florida Power & Light has spent $3 billion for concrete poles, smart meters, flood monitors in substations and better mutual aid and recovery plans.

Increasing customer bills to pay for these upgrades remains controversial, Aaronson said, but state utility regulators are feeling the same pressure as power companies.

“They don’t want to be blamed for not approving prudent investments to keep the lights on,” he said.

But any investments Avangrid proposes to reduce storm outages will receive intense scrutiny.

For instance: In its $2.5 billion estimate, Avangrid notes that $500 million of the total is earmarked for a full rollout of smart meters for its New York utilities. Among the touted benefits of digital, networked meters during storms is the ability of utilities to detect outages, make faster repairs and share information with customers.

But that promise so far has fallen short in Maine. CMP installed smart meters seven years ago, with a $200 million investment split equally between a federal grant and ratepayers. But according to comments filed last month by the Public Advocate’s Office in the PUC storm-response inquiry, only 48 percent of the meters worked properly on Oct. 31, when the storm hit. Hobbins’ office wants CMP to file a report on what steps it’s taking to improve smart meter performance.

Berry said Avangrid has to be held accountable for new spending, to assure it will make a real difference in future storms.

“We were promised that the massive public investment in the (smart meter) system would help with resiliency, and that clearly didn’t happen,” he said. “So we all are rightly skeptical and want to see the details.”

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