BETHEL — Rick Savage doesn’t like getting pushed around.
The co-owner of Sunday River Brewing Co. and developer of scores of new houses got angry when he discovered the power company might have shortchanged him.
Two years ago, he filed a complaint with the Public Utilities Commission questioning Central Maine Power’s refusal to reimburse him for the cost of installing underground power lines from the street to the homes he’d constructed.
The law mandated the electricity provider cover the tab for “service drops,” the lines that dangle between poles along the road to the buildings that need power, but didn’t specifically address what happens if somebody put the lines underground, a more costly alternative.
The power company took a simple stance: it wouldn’t pay anything toward their expense.
Savage not only convinced the commission that he deserved some reimbursement, he is determined to make sure everyone else in his shoes gets paid as well.
Plus, he said, he’s about to take aim at what he sees as an even more egregious provision that requires developers to wire an entire new subdivision – something Savage estimates will cost him $1 million for a nearly 300-unit development he’s eyeing – and then hand over all that costly electrical infrastructure to the power company.
“It’s not a fair system,” Savage said. The utility, he said, ought to be paying for at least a share of all the wiring installed so that it can deliver electricity to consumers.
Power company spokeswoman Gail Rice, who said privacy rules prohibit her from discussing Savage’s case, said Central Maine Power “does not take title to privately constructed underground service drops, and is not responsible for their ongoing maintenance,” a provision that may undermine the developer’s threats.
She also pointed to a June order from the PUC that changed the rules for underground wiring so that developers would not be eligible for any reimbursement for work they did after June 1.
Utilities, the order said, are “not obligated to reimburse a developer for any portion of an underground or aboveground service drop that a developer or other individual chooses to install and own themselves.” It said waiving the reimbursement “is reasonable because such service drops are constructed at the sole discretion of the developer and CMP does not maintain” them.
That still leaves open the possibility that developers who constructed underground lines in the past six years, before the new order took effect, could get some reimbursement.
Savage said he might not have emerged as a vocal foe of CMP and the utility rules that he thinks favor big companies over ordinary Mainers if he’d been treated fairly.
But the company’s determined opposition to him from the start raised his ire and got him digging through obscure, hard-to-understand regulations that he thinks favor big utilities with squads of lawyers.
Savage said CMP “has been fighting us the whole way” instead of negotiating in good faith like reasonable people do.
“Honestly, it’s like dealing with the mafia,” Savage said.
Initially, Savage asked that the power company reimburse him for 157 service drops he said he had installed underground, which he’d done to make his developments look better than they would with wires dangling overhead.
What he wanted from CMP was the amount the firm would have spent had it put in the typical aboveground lines.
By Savage’s figuring, that amounted to $324,470. The utility, using a different way of calculating the cost, offered him $15,565, according to a confidential July 11 PUC recommended decision provided by Savage.
After much back-and-forth about how to come up with the number, and with the involvement of the PUC’s Consumer Assistance and Safety Division, regulators agreed that Savage ought to get $31,946 for 68 service drops that were installed within the past six years, recently enough to qualify.
While Savage waits for his money, he’s urging other developers who might be owed money for service drops they never got reimbursed for to ask for their share.
There’s no reason to let CMP keep it, he said, particularly since the utility’s profits only benefit its owners in Spain, not anyone in Maine.
Serving more than 600,000 customers in central and southern Maine, CMP is a subsidiary of Avangrid, an energy and utility company that operates in many states. It is 81.5 percent owned by Iberdrola S.A., a Spanish firm.
The rules say that CMP can’t charge customers for overhead service drops of 150 feet or less between a building and a line on the same side of a street. The limit rises to 200 feet if the power lines are on the opposite side of the road. The company is also required to pay its portion of the expense if the service drop lines are required to be longer.
Discussing Savage’s case, the PUC said it agreed that CMP had to compensate him for the portion of the costs CMP would have incurred if Savage had used aboveground lines. But it also called the situation unusual and opened the door for CMP to ask for a revision in the regulations.
The company asked for a change in April and got a final OK in June for a rule that says it won’t have to reimburse for costs if a developer chooses to put the lines underground. Nobody objected to the revision, the order said.
Savage is plotting his next move.
Standing behind his brew pub, he pointed to a small mountain not too far off. He said he’s planning a 295-home development there that would have great views and a golf course.
Clearly a major project, Savage said he figures that installing all the electricity-related infrastructure to provide power to everything will cost about $1 million — all of it paid upfront and none of it eligible for any reimbursement.
He said it irks him that before they can throw the switch to let a homebuyer use the electricity that CMP will deliver, he will have to turn over the entire new wired infrastructure to the utility for free.
“We’re building a Spanish company’s infrastructure for nothing,” Savage said.
Savage said there’s no good rationale for sticking developers with the entire cost of the infrastructure a major company will use to bolster its bottom line.
He said some states have a cost-sharing formula based on the road footage involved, which might work. The important thing, he said, is to get the rule changed so that it’s more fair to Maine businesses and does more to encourage development.
“Where can you get your infrastructure built for nothing?” he asked. “It doesn’t happen, except in Maine.”
“It’s a system that doesn’t work,” Savage said. “It’s not even close to being fair.”
Developer Rick Savage