Maine’s largest utility has found itself triaging its reputation again after a major mistake on solar projects. It took only a week for Central Maine Power to back down from assertions that solar project developers would be facing a longer and more pricey grid connection process. But the mistrust has already been sown among renewable energy advocates and both lawmakers and regulators have pounced on the misfire.
The Maine Public Utilities Commission announced yesterday it will conduct three related investigations into the electric grid’s capacity for new connections after CMP said a massive solar expansion prompted by a 2019 law was causing problems at substations, 100 of which would need to be rebuilt at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars.
Developers pushed back, with Gov. Janet Mills — an ardent supporter of the utility’s controversial $1 billion corridor — calling for an investigation on Monday. A day later, CMP reversed the decision. It now says the upgrades can be done at a cost of no more than $40 million and perhaps far less.
It fell on David Flanagan, CMP’s executive chairman, to explain that to the Legislature’s energy committee on Thursday. He said the engineers acted under past precedent and with safety of the grid in mind when they sent letters to developers saying their costs to connect projects to the grid would explode, but conceded that it was “not a practical solution.”
Flanagan also said under questioning from Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, the panel’s chairman and a leading CMP critic, company executives were not aware of the letters when they were sent out. It will now face the utility commission again after a long-running case ended in early 2020 with a $10 million penalty for customer service. It got a $500,000 fine last year for improper disconnection notices in the winter. Every bad storm evokes memories of the 2017 wind storm, when the company’s smart meters stopped functioning.
All of this has animated the political fight against the western Maine corridor, which the utility has recently begun construction on despite a partial injunction. There are other legal challenges afloat as well as opponents have submitted roughly 100,000 signatures in a second attempt to get a question on the statewide ballot aiming to overturn the project.
We will know soon if the question will go to voters and any effort will be subject to a potential court challenge. With CMP and corridor opponents heavily invested to the tune of tens of millions in that political fight, any other distractions for the utility may be particularly damaging. It magnifies the solar snafu and makes the problem all the more head-scratching.
— “Maine paid millions to a controversial firm to help fix unemployment system,” Jessica Piper, Bangor Daily News: “McKinsey & Co. helped the state pay out claims more quickly, combat fraud and improve communication with unemployed workers, the Maine Department of Labor said. But the $6.3 million no-bid contract, which was recently extended through March, highlights the high cost of fixing Maine’s unemployment system, which has faced challenges since a revamp a few years ago. It comes at a time when McKinsey has seen scrutiny over its advice to governments and companies as many Mainers still struggle to access benefits.”
— “Legislator says she had tense encounters in 2019 with Mainer charged in DC riot,” Judy Harrison, BDN: “A southern Maine legislator said she had two unnerving encounters in 2019 with Kyle Fitzsimons, the first Mainer charged in connection with the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol riot. They show why an Augusta office building where legislative committees meet should have metal detectors and security screening, as the neighboring State House does, she said.”
Fitzsimons’ case will be moved to the nation’s capital. He will be held in a federal detention facility there until a probable cause and bail hearing can be held in Washington, D.C., after a judge granted his request to move the case at a remote hearing on Thursday.
— “What to know about the COVID-19 variant newly detected in Maine,” Piper, BDN: “If the new strain starts to spread widely in Maine, it could push the reproduction number back above one, and cases would rise again. That is the scenario health officials worry about. But other measures, such as physical distancing and use of face coverings, can also bring the reproduction number back down and stop the virus from spreading.”
Today’s Daily Brief was written by Michael Shepherd and Caitlin Andrews. If you’re reading this on the BDN’s website or were forwarded it, you can sign up to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning here.