Workers upgrade a Central Maine Power station in Windsor on Nov. 28, 2021. Kennebec Journal file photo by Andy Molloy

Maine officials are imagining an electric grid of the future nimble enough to communicate with buildings to cut energy use, provide power to electric vehicles adapted to serve as batteries, and keep pace with a growing array of solar and wind sources.

The Governor’s Energy Office is leading a study, called for in legislation sponsored by Rep. Gerry Runte, D-York, to determine if a Maine-based organization could run the state’s electric grid while saving money for customers, improving reliability and more quickly reaching Maine’s climate goals.

It would be the first in the nation and is “uncharted territory,” Runte said.

Currently, the nonprofit ISO-New England, based in Holyoke, Massachusetts, operates the regional grid that encompasses 9,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines and power plants across six states. ISO-New England administers the buying and selling of electricity and approves generation, transmission and distribution upgrades.

A state grid operator – called a Distribution System Operator – would not replace the ISO but could instead shift control over some aspects of Maine’s power system to a local group, bringing decision-making closer to home.

A Maine grid operator, for example, could speed the transition to clean energy. Critics say the 20th-century grid is hampered by delays in connecting zero-carbon energy sources such as solar and wind, aging equipment and rapidly rising electric rates. The system is sometimes seen, fairly or not, as a century-old system of poles and wires resembling “rotary dial phone” technology in the internet era, Runte said.


Maine’s grid includes three major distribution networks that bring electricity to homes and businesses – Central Maine Power Co., Versant’s Bangor Hydro and Maine Public districts, and the Eastern Maine Electric Cooperative, along with several municipal cooperatives. These systems are among many that comprise the New England grid for which the ISO is responsible.

“It might be worthwhile to look at how all those grids interact in a comprehensive way and not be separate little entities and have far better control,” Runte said.

The first part of Maine’s study, which would cost up to $200,000, is expected to be completed by September. If the Governor’s Energy Office decides that a state grid operator can be designed to achieve its objectives, a second part, costing up to $100,000, will propose and identify the scope and characteristics of a state grid.

A Maine grid operator could reach into local areas, working with microgrids – compact grids that serve small areas – and energy storage needed to hold power that is generated by wind and solar and released at night and on windless days. A state grid operator also could review planning by utilities and share data from “smart,” or digital, electric systems to improve energy efficiency.

Other questions remain, such as: who would run the state grid operator – a nonprofit, for example, or another entity; what regulatory authority it might have; what its costs might be; and the scope of its responsibilities.

For now, the study of a Maine grid operator is intended to find a way to better align the state’s electricity transmission and distribution system with the transition to zero-carbon energy.


To reduce greenhouse gas emissions, electricity markets will require more solar energy, energy-storage batteries, EVs, and efficient buildings with controls that manage appliances and heating and cooling systems.

A more local and decentralized grid that’s different from today’s one-way delivery of electricity to homes and businesses would allow advanced communications with smart meters. The devices that now transmit data to utilities’ computers for billing purposes could eventually do much more in a refashioned grid: control building heating and cooling systems, operate solar panels, and detect power interruptions and restore electricity.

Seth Berry, a former co-chairman of the Legislature’s Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee and a critic of Maine’s investor-owned utilities, said a state grid operator would be an improvement over what’s now in place. Utilities now “have an incentive to gold-plate the grid,” building out transmission and distribution systems that increase the cost of operating the grid, he said. With a state grid operator, though, decisions about investments and energy purchases would be more transparent, made in the public interest and aligned with customer interests, Berry said.

Berry helped lead a campaign last year to win voter approval of a publicly owned power company. Voters overwhelmingly rejected Pine Tree Power, but Runte said the grid study addresses a “certain level of dissatisfaction” with the performance of CMP and Versant, which have repeatedly ranked dead last in the nation in customer satisfaction surveys.

In testimony last year to lawmakers, Maine’s two largest utilities took no position on the legislation authorizing the study.

CMP said a study, “if conducted with significant utility involvement, could be of value.”


Versant, meanwhile, warned that establishing a state grid operator would fundamentally change how Maine’s electric grid is run and planned. It would require a “wholesale reevaluation” of grid planning now underway and of reconfigured utilities’ operations centers at “significant expense to ratepayers,” the utility said.

Public Advocate William Harwood warned legislators of a “risk of uneconomic duplication” with burgeoning administrative costs. Portions of electricity consumers’ bills support the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, ISO-New England, the Maine Public Utilities Commission, the Efficiency Maine Trust (which administers the state’s energy efficiency programs) and the Office of the Public Advocate, he said.

Establishing a “mini-ISO” may lead to overbuilding and higher rates if power generators and utilities get their way at the expense of ratepayers, Harwood said.

“At a time when electricity prices have increased dramatically, we need to be careful about imposing additional costs on to ratepayers,” he said.

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