Transmission troubles

By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  February 11, 2009

The obvious solution is to create more transmission lines, to carry more power from more outputs (power plants, wind farms, hydro dams, etc.) to the regional power grid, where it can be farmed out to homes and businesses. But the question becomes, who pays for these multi-million-dollar lines? If the electricity would be channeled into the New England-wide grid, should all six states, whose residents would benefit from additional power availability, help pay for it? Should the project developers pay, since they'll be using the lines? Should Maine shoulder most of the financial burden, if the line is within state boundaries? Should the utilities, like Central Maine Power and Bangor Hydro, pay? And in any of these situations, how much of that cost gets passed down to ratepayers like you and me?

Because the grid infrastructure hasn't been addressed in a comprehensive way in decades, answers to these questions don't exist. Or rather, the answer is that all those involved parties should help to pay, but the real conundrum is: How is the cost of building additional transmission lines most fairly shared out? And that's why projects like Aroostook Wind falter.

"It's going to take some more innovative solutions," Deora says of relatively nonexistent funding mechanisms, which evaluate potential projects on a case-by-case basis (as opposed to an established formula). He points to the regional transmission system in Texas, comprising a web of transmission lines, paid for by transmission companies up front and the ratepayers down the road, as "what we'd like to see" in New England.

It's impossible to envision better transmission infrastructure — or the general green-energy expansion that Barack Obama heralded during his campaign — without also imagining increased financial collaboration among the New England states for transmission infrastructure. Boyles, of Maine Public Service, suggests that the Maine Power Connection setback might have the positive effect of forcing inventive cost-share discussions with energy regulators in other states.

How power transmission should work. By Deirdre Fulton.

What is to be done? By Deirdre Fulton.

The private company that regulates New England's power grid, ISO-New England, is "currently working to establish parameters for those types of projects," and figure out who should pay for what, according to company spokeswoman Marcia Blomberg. So too are the Maine Power Connection partners, as well as government officials; Governor John Baldacci's task force on renewable energy, which has said that Maine should aim for 2000 megawatts of new wind power capacity by 2015, is charged with evaluating transmission issues — capacity, improvement strategies — as well.

All stakeholders expressed hopefulness about the forthcoming federal economic stimulus plan, which includes money that's specifically earmarked for energy-transmission upgrades. Maine and the other five New England states are certain to see some of that money, but the question remains, will energy commissioners and utilities agree on how to use it?

Regardless of who's coughing up the cash, large-scale investment is necessary, given the capacity that's called for from these lines. (The proposed MPC line connecting northern Maine to the rest of New England would be able to transport power from several wind farms; it also would cost more than $600 million.) That scale of expense is why dividing the costs fairly is so important. The other alternative, having just one entity finance new transmission lines, doesn't make much sense, especially given that there are more than 4000 megawatts of wind power currently proposed for the New England region, Blomberg says — and approximately 100 megawatts (out of 31,000 total megawatts that comprise the New England grid) online now.

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