PUC approval means CMP may soon start construction

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LEWISTON — With the majority of its massive grid upgrade approved by the Maine Public Utilities Commission, Central Maine Power Co. plans later this year to begin construction at the edge of Lewiston, near Route 202, heading north to Greene and Rumford.

Construction in Lewiston is scheduled to begin in late 2011. 

The PUC late last week approved a slightly revised version of CMP’s proposed $1.4 billion upgrade, called the Maine Power Reliability Program. The approval allows CMP to upgrade a swath of power lines, beginning in Eliot and passing through central Maine to Orrington, where they connect to lines from Canada. The lines pass through Litchfield, Monmouth, Leeds, Greene, Lewiston and a corner of Auburn.

In some places, lines will be rebuilt or replaced. In other places, lines will be added, including 115-kilovolt (115,000 volts) and 345-kilovolt lines. The 345-kilovolt poles, not common in Maine, are wider than traditional power-line towers and, depending on location, are about 20 to 25 feet taller than the lower-voltage poles.

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The project affects about 4,000 property abutters statewide.

Although the PUC approved the majority of the project, it put off approving some parts, including a proposed upgrade to lines that run through downtown Lewiston. The PUC said it needed more time to evaluate whether such an upgrade is needed and whether alternatives could work.

CMP first proposed its upgrade nearly two years ago. Its initial plan caused an uproar in Lewiston, mostly from homeowners who were afraid the high-voltage lines would be placed too close to their homes, would lower their property taxes and would emit electromagnetic fields they feared could cause cancer.

Much of that outrage calmed, however,  when the Lewiston City Council agreed last year to return up to $3.5 million in new property taxes to CMP over the next 20 years in exchange for some concessions to homeowners. In many cases, CMP agreed to move the high-voltage lines farther from houses and to keep the trees that hide power lines from homeowners’ views.

Although the city agreed to return some tax money, Lewiston will still see a “significant economic benefit,” including more than $1 million a year in new taxes and more than $100 million spent on the construction project within the city, Deputy City Administrator Phil Nadeau said. The agreement won’t address the concerns of every homeowner, but it will help most, he said.

Along with the PUC’s approval and an OK from Lewiston, CMP has received approval from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection and from ISO-New England, the organization responsible for electricity transmission in this region. It must now get environmental permits from the Army Corps of Engineers and any local permits required by the 81 towns affected by the project.

Construction is slated to begin later this year and to continue through 2015.

To get PUC approval, CMP agreed to a participate in a pilot program with Grid Solar LLC  for smart grid and non-transmission alternatives to be used in two regions of the state. It also agreed to spend $17 million on energy-efficiency programs and $1.5 million on transmission planning, regionally and nationally. CMP also agreed to establish an ombudsman position and a dispute resolution process to address landowner concerns.

Maine ratepayers will pay 8 percent of CMP’s project costs. The rest will be shared by ratepayers around New England.

ltice@sunjournal.com

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