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PUC Chairman Says Renewable Energy Will Spark 'Very Difficult Transition' For Maine Grid

Robert F. Bukaty
Associated Press file
In this Tuesday, May 28, 2019 photo power lines power lines are seen in Pownal, Maine.

Maine’s top utility regulators are launching a new effort to prepare Maine’s electricity supply and distribution systems for a major transformation. It’s all about accommodating the fast-arriving age of renewable energy, which is already causing some serious growing pains.

Maine Public Utilities Chairman Phil Bartlett says changes in Maine’s energy systems are gaining speed, as the effort to “decarbonize” the economy puts a new premium on power sources that don’t pollute.

“We know that this is just the very beginning of a very difficult transition that we’re going to have to make if we are going to electrify our heating and transportation sectors and if we’re going to bring on the kind of renewable resources that we’re going to need going forward,” he says.

Maine’s existing electric grid was mostly built decades ago to accommodate big power generators like hydroelectric dams, oil and gas-fired plants and nuclear stations.

“That is all changing. We are expecting more distributed resources on our distribution system. There’ll be batteries for storage increasingly added to the system. We also know that there will be significant increases in load as we put in more heat pumps, and as folks transition to electric vehicles. And we need to make sure that the grid is ready for that,” Bartlett says.

So the PUC, its staff and outside consultants are embarking on a comprehensive analysis of the existing system, and then modeling what modernization would look like — what changes in design, infrastructure and policy would make it more flexible and reliable, not to mention who should pay for it all.

“We need to really assess how the grid needs to be changed and how costs are going to be allocated for that to be sure that we are ready for the future that is coming at us very quickly,” Bartlett says.

It’s arguable that that future is already here.

After years of resistance by former Gov. Paul LePage, Gov. Janet Mills and the Legislature enacted a suite of policy incentives and power procurements to encourage the development of dispersed renewable energy projects in Maine. That unleashed an unprecedented boom in solar power project, in particular.

There have been some clear successes, but also some warning flags, such as a commission report estimating potentially major bill hikes for ordinary electricity consumers. More recently, Maine’s energy world was put into an uproar when Central Maine Power’s unexpectedly revised upwards by millions of dollars its assessment of what it will cost to upgrade its transmission systems to facilitate getting that energy onto the grid.

“I do think that the wave of investment and interest in Maine was higher than they may have anticipated. But we’re certainly going to look at what steps were taken to prepare and how things went so wrong with respects to the costs for some of the distributed resources in CMP’s territory,” Bartlett says.

The PUC has launched a separate inquiry focused only on that fracas, but it will likely inform the larger effort as well. Bartlett says comprehensive, forward-looking analysis and planning should be a priority for regulators throughout the nation.

He adds that the failures of Texas’ grid in this week’s cold snap were caused by infrastructure conditions quite different from New England’s relatively weather-hardened systems. But he says it’s a lesson, nonetheless, that weather volatility in a climate-changing world will require diverse types of energy supply to secure reliability.

“I also think that there is going to be an important role for transmission. Had Texas had more robust transmission connections to other part of the country, their crisis wouldn’t have been nearly as deep, because they could have brought resources. And there are a lot of constraints around the country, between regions,” Bartlett says.

In the coming years, he says, federal and state utility regulators from will need to plan more proactively, and collaboratively, than ever before.

A Columbia University graduate, Fred began his journalism career as a print reporter in Vermont, then came to Maine Public in 2001 as its political reporter, as well as serving as a host for a variety of Maine Public Radio and Maine Public Television programs. Fred later went on to become news director for New England Public Radio in Western Massachusetts and worked as a freelancer for National Public Radio and a number of regional public radio stations, including WBUR in Boston and NHPR in New Hampshire.