Amid controversy over the cost of connecting solar energy farms to Maine’s electrical grid, the state’s primary regulator of utilities said Thursday that it has launched an investigation into the “future design and operation of the electric distribution system in Maine.”

The Maine Public Utilities Commission investigation was announced about two weeks after a dispute erupted over Central Maine Power’s estimated costs for connecting solar energy farms to the grid. Solar energy developers in the state expressed anger and disbelief after many developers received emails from the utility indicating that their projects are causing technical problems at power substations that could require costly upgrades.

Gov. Janet Mills called for an investigation into the issue, and CMP partly backtracked on its initial cost estimates and said it can likely make the needed upgrades for most solar projects at a cost of $175,000 to $300,000 each, far less than the original estimate of millions of dollars per project.

The utility blamed the initial, higher cost estimates on midlevel engineers failing to run their numbers past senior engineers or company managers before sending them out to the developers.

Philip Bartlett, chairman of the Maine Public Utilities Commission Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“To address climate change in the years ahead, we will be placing new demands on our electric distribution system, and we must assess how to modernize the grid at the lowest cost for Maine people,” said PUC Chairman Philip Bartlett in a statement. “Recent issues related to interconnection of distributed resources highlight both the challenges we face and the urgency of the need for effective planning. We are at the beginning of a period of significant transition, and we must seize the opportunity to modernize our grid to support beneficial electrification, integrate more renewable resources, and improve reliability.”

Bartlett said the investigation will focus on the distribution systems of Maine’s investor-owned transmission and distribution utilities: CMP and Versant Power. It will address “information transparency issues” and consider opportunities to create “a more robust, flexible system to adapt to changing uses and needs.”

The first step will be for the PUC to retain expert electrical engineering and consulting services to conduct the comprehensive examination, it said.  The consultants would then compile a detailed report on their findings and recommendations.

The PUC said it would then “thoroughly explore the issues and allow interested persons to examine the consultant’s report and provide input and recommendations regarding the issues presented.” No specific timeline was provided for the work.

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