Staff for Maine’s utility regulatory commission have recommended against allowing Emera to build a new $15.4 million power line from Monticello to New Brunswick to expand capacity of the regional power grid.
The proposed 138 kilovolt line is one of many options regulators were asked to consider to ensure the Northern Maine power grid does not fall below state standards for system reliability.
Susan Faloon, a spokeswoman for Emera, said the utility plans to file its response, formally called its exceptions, to the recommendation from the staff of the Maine Public Utilities Commission.
The utility still believes its transmission line proposal is the best longterm option for ensuring the grid remains reliable, though the recent restart of biomass generators in the region have helped, she said.
“The fairly recent restart of [ReEnergy’s biomass plant in] Ashland does help to relieve those reliability weaknesses for the short-term, but a long-term solution is needed,” Faloon said Tuesday.
The addition of the new line also would open more opportunities for ongoing maintenance and repair, Faloon said.
The recommendation revisited specific concerns about reliability for the Northern Maine Independent System Operator, which operates the Northern Maine power grid that serves about 54,000 customers of the Eastern Maine Electric Cooperative and the former Maine Public Service Co.
Commission staff wrote that the addition of new biomass generators in the area and other variables in the short term – such as whether the municipally owned Houlton Water Co. connects with and becomes a customer of NB Power instead of Emera – also could change its assessment of demand and reliability on the regional grid, referred to as the Maine Public District, or MPD.
“While evidence points toward Houlton making arrangements to become a network customer of NBP, we accept Houlton counsel’s statements that Houlton is still in negotiations phase with NB Power and, therefore, do not base our reliability analysis on the scenario of Houlton leaving the MPD,” the staff report stated. “However, we do note that should Houlton exit the MPD system, the reliability need would decrease.”
The report, with which PUC commissioners ultimately may disagree, recommends Emera and the regional grid operator, the Northern Maine Independent System Administrator, first seek ways to help advance the upgrade of a transformer in New Brunswick before pursuing its own new transmission line.
Faloon said Tuesday that Emera supports that upgrade of Algonquin Power Co.’s Tinker Transformer but argues that it “is not the strongest solution nor does it solve all reliability weaknesses.”
The PUC report estimates Emera’s requested upgrade would cost the average ratepayer – using 500 kilowatts per month – about $34.07 more each year in transmission fees. If the regional grid operator negotiated with Algonquin Power to help fund part of the cost of upgrading the Tinker Transformer to handle more electricity, the PUC estimated ratepayers could expect about $1.94 in added annual costs.
The methods for getting to those estimates and the analysis by the PUC to determine the relative value of the projects may be questioned when participating parties file their exceptions.
Bigger questions await
The recommendation comes as the unique northern Maine power grid faces bigger questions about its future. That includes whether there’s any benefit to ratepayers from connecting transmission lines in the area to the New England power grid.
PUC staff suggested regulators take on those larger considerations in a second phase of the case, assessing questions such as whether to connect the Northern Maine power grid with the one serving the rest of New England.
Those considerations could be affected by upcoming projects as well, including EDP Renewable’s massive 119-turbine No. 9 Wind Farm proposal, which would be located about 9 miles west of Bridgewater.
The project would involve building a new 50-mile transmission line from Houlton to Haynesville and could involve linking to the Northern Maine grid, but PUC staff wrote that connection is not required for the wind farm to connect to the regional market and fulfill its contracts with utilities in Connecticut and Massachusetts.
Other similar projects – including new generators or alternatives to new transmission lines – require further study, PUC staff wrote. It plans to continue studying those options in Phase II of the case.
Parties in the case are set to submit their comments on the staff report by Aug. 31. The case has not yet been scheduled for deliberations before the full utilities commission.
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