Over the next three years Central Maine Power (CMP) is proposing to invest nearly $30 million for what it's calling a "resiliency" program to harden its aging electricity distribution system.
Company officials say the network was established long before planners understood the damaging effects of climate change, such as windstorms that cause more frequent and longer outages. But utility regulators — and the state's public advocate — are skeptical about whether the overhaul is justified.
In Eliot, Maine, along a hilly stretch of road near the state’s southern border, line workers in cherry pickers cut away tree limbs that hover above the CMP power lines.
CMP's leader on the effort is Lloyd Hendrix, the company's "manager for process and technology."
On a tour of the Eliot job, he is quick to point out a key problem with the system here — age. "These poles right here, they've been up since 1935,” says Hendrix. “Look at this. Look at this one...look at the difference."
The older poles are shorter, thinner and much more weathered than the freshly debarked replacements being installed alongside them. And Hendrix points to sections of bare electrical wire that have suffered repeated breaks over the decades, each time plunging the 2,000-plus customers on this circuit into darkness.
"Look at that. One, two, three, four, five splices just right there," he says.
CMP is taking a multi-pronged approach to strengthening its system, starting by replacing 132 of these Depression-era poles with taller, more robust poles. The company is also upgrading the exposed copper lines to coated "tree wire," as it's called, which doesn't part or short-out as easily when hit by a tree limb.
And the company is installing remote-controlled switching systems, as well as redundant circuits, that will allow a controller at its Augusta headquarters to isolate a damaged segment. In the event of a break, that will leave fewer people on the 20-mile circuit without power until a lineman can get to the site to make repairs.
"This is one of the worst-performing circuits in the system, which is why it was selected for this resiliency project," says Stan Bachhuber, a general foreman for a company called "Three-Phase Line" — CMP"s contractor on the Eliot upgrades.
"Most of the challenges are just the overhanging trees,” he says. “The fact that it's a windy, busy road makes it tough... It's a fairly straightforward distribution job."
One thing homeowners in the area might notice: fewer of those overhanging trees. For a decade, CMP has deployed a tree-trimming program that aims to cut back hazardous limbs on the entire system. That's provided a minimum of 15 feet of clearance above electricity lines.
But under a new "ground-to-sky" clearance program targeted, for now, on the company's 12 worst-performing circuits in Maine, CMP would seek property-owners permission, when needed, to trim trees from top to bottom, with an 8-foot limb-free zone on either side of the line.
CMP's Lloyd Hendrix says that neighboring homeowners don't necessarily approve.
"On this circuit right here we had a little bit of pushback, but we're trying to work with the landowners — work with them, but moving forward, that's what we want to see, more of that," says Hendrix.
“People love their trees,” he adds. “I love trees too, but if it can prevent me from having an outage I would do it."
It's an approach that CMP officials say improved reliability at United Illuminating, a sister utility company in Connecticut. Both are held by CMP's parent company Avangrid, which is calling for new resiliency investments throughout its U.S. electricity distribution companies.
With 70 percent of outages caused by tree-contact in heavily-forested Maine, more aggressive tree-trimming programs are CMP's first line of action. Company Vice President Eric Stinneford says that climate change is altering the makeup of the New England canopy, in some cases weakening it, while storm events are becoming more frequent and volatile.
"Particularly these fall events where we get heavy rains, saturated ground, we still have leaves on the trees, and we get 50-60 mile an hour winds. And it predictably will bring trees, uproot trees, break trees off, and that's where we've had our most significant outages,” says Stinneford. “It's happened twice now in the last two years."
CMP is proposing $16 million worth of new capital investment in the first year of its resiliency program, with smaller but still significant amounts in following years — if state regulators approve it.
And in filings, CMP says that additional spending of $30 million on grid resilience over the next decade would ultimately net consumers $55 million in savings from a stronger system and avoided outage repairs.
But some say CMP, whose shareholders earn a profit on capital investments paid for by customers, is really looking to pad the kind of ongoing reliability investments that any utility must make to protect its infrastructure.
"I'm being cynical when I say more robust means more expensive," says Barry Hobbins, Maine's public advocate.
In his position, Hobbins is charged with protecting the interests of utility customers. He says his consultants and Public Utilities Commission staff believe that CMP is not following standard accounting practices for justifying expenditures. One example: CMP is proposing to replace all poles more than 75 years old, whether or not inspections might find they don't all need replacement.
"It's great to roll out this program for PR reasons, but it really should be looked at a way solely to spend more money when the ratepayers don't have it."
Hobbins says CMP should look first to re-establishing its competency with its much-maligned customer and billing services. But CMP's Eric Stinneford says that contending with climate-driven costs, and deciding who will pay for them, will be a growing factor in regulatory decisions.
"There's always second guessing and wishful back-casting. But yeah, it's clear that this is now an established trend,” says Stinneford. “Perhaps we didn't see it as a trend as recently as two or three years ago. But now we feel pretty comfortably that this is the world we're going to live in for a while, and we need to make adjustments to react to that."
The Eliot project is expected to be finished in a few weeks. After that, the company turns its attention to under-performing circuits in the Jackman area — a project that regulators have already approved. Those same regulators are expected to act on CMP's latest spending request and weigh in on the merits of its proposed resilience program by the end of January.
Originally published 4:05 p.m. Dec. 30, 2019