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Energy Regulators To Investigate Whether CMP Treated Solar Developers Fairly

Electrician Zach Newton works on wiring solar panels at the 38-acre BNRG/Dirigo solar farm, Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021, in Oxford, Maine. President Joe Biden wants to change the way the U.S. uses energy by expanding renewables, but faces several challenges. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)
Robert F. Bukaty
Electrician Zach Newton works on wiring solar panels at the 38-acre BNRG/Dirigo solar farm, Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021, in Oxford, Maine.

State regulators are launching an investigation into how Central Maine Power responded to the implementation of new solar energy development in Maine. Developers say that when new legislative mandates for solar energy were introduced, CMP dropped the ball.

The Public Utilities Commission says it wants to know why CMP this year significantly escalated earlier cost estimates for grid upgrades needed to accommodate the recent surge in mid-size "community solar" projects planned for Maine.

"We want to make sure that this kind of thing doesn't happen again," says Phil Bartlett, who chairs the commission.

Bartlett says CMP has a duty to respond prudently to legislative mandates.

"The utilities needed to be prepared for it. And want to better understand: Was it a one-off thing? Is there some fundamental problem in the way that these studies are being conducted? How do we make sure that folks that invested money based on policy enacted by the Legislature are being treated fairly?" he says.

Solar industry trade groups called for the investigation after CMP revealed in February that it would revise upward its estimates by tens of millions.

"A bomb was dropped on the industry with no warning," says Jeremy Payne, executive director of the Maine Renewable Energy Association.

Payne says the sense of crisis has eased somewhat since, with CMP starting to get a better handle on the true scope of needed upgrades and proposing some less costly approaches. But he still supports the regulators' effort to open a window on CMP's internal decision-making processes.

"Many of these companies had fully completed system impact studies, fully executed interconnection agreements, they'd made investments, they'd financed their projects and in some cases started building them based on information they received from Central Maine Power," he says.

The regulators say CMP needs to provide much more documentation than it has so far.

CMP spokeswoman Catharine Hartnett says the company will fully cooperate with the investigation. She also notes that over the course of two years, new solar power projects proposed in Maine rose from just two to some 600.

"Everybody wants as much clean energy as we can get, as soon as we can get it. But there are some technical challenges in getting that done safely, and we've made great progress over the last couple of months in being able to break this all down for folks, and we'll continue to do that," she says.

Stakeholders on all sides say it's too early to tell how or whether the state's renewable energy goals may have been set back. And lawmakers are also considering a temporary moratorium on any new proposals for mid-size solar projects, as regulators raise concerns that incentives that drove the influx threaten to unduly raise bills for consumers who don't directly benefit from the installations.

Regulators are also considering a request from CMP to increase rates to recover some of the costs from five major storms last year.

The company asked the commission to boost rates by $26.5 million to compensate for the unexpected expenses. That proposal will be reviewed and other factors considered before July 1, when any change would take effect.

CMP's requested increase for the distribution portion of monthly bills is nearly 9.6%, or a little less than $3 per month for the average bill.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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.