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Kaitlin Kelly O’Neill is the northeast regional director of the Coalition for Community Solar Access.
Maine has made great progress toward our goal of replacing carbon-emitting fossil fuels with clean, renewable energy. Last year, the Mills administration and the Legislature came together to pass a bill — An Act To Promote Solar Energy Projects and Distributed Generation Resources in Maine — that paved the way for substantial growth in the solar industry. Since the bill passed, hundreds of new small- and mid-scale local solar projects began development, and Maine’s energy future had never looked brighter — or cleaner.
But that all came to a screeching halt recently, when Central Maine Power threw a gigantic, multi-million dollar wrench in the works.
In order for solar arrays to distribute their clean, renewable power, they must tie into CMP’s electrical infrastructure. A major component of a solar project’s development is this ” interconnection” with CMP, and solar developers pay a significant cost to plug in and help harden the grid. After CMP conducts a study to make sure its system can handle the new power load, it signs a contract with the developers and assesses a fee to connect. Once this contract is signed, the solar developers can move forward, sign up customers, seek financing and make plans for their investment.
However, after Maine’s new solar bill spurred a flurry of new projects, CMP did something extraordinary: It dramatically increased the interconnection fees it had quoted to solar developers by hundreds of millions of dollars collectively, in many cases after the contracts with the project owners were already signed, suddenly claiming its infrastructure could not handle the additional power load without massive upgrades.
And who does CMP expect to cover these additional fees? The solar developer, of course.
Early estimates show that these after-the-fact fee increases will impact projects in roughly 74 Maine towns, representing hundreds of millions of dollars in solar investment at a time when local and state economies need it the most.
In one case, a project that CMP already signed a contract for and that has already started construction had its interconnection fee increased from $239,000 to a whopping $12,239,000 — a $12 million after-the-fact fee increase on a project already being built.
And cost isn’t the only problem. CMP is requiring additional studies to be done — again, after already estimating costs based on previous studies that the developers already paid for — which threaten to delay solar projects for months. These delays will likely cost developers significantly, and in many cases, will kill the projects altogether.
These stunning changes have created an earthquake in the solar industry. Over the past week, news reports of CMP’s unprecedented actions have resulted in an outcry from developers and public officials. Gov. Janet Mills has since rightly called on the Maine Public Utilities Commission to investigate CMP’s interconnection process, a position our organizations strongly support.
In response to the growing outrage, CMP took another puzzling step. It issued a letter to the utilities commission saying that, after a second look, it could proceed with these interconnections at a minimal cost. While we are encouraged that CMP appears to be backing away from these outrageous fee increases, we are baffled by this response.
So far, CMP has not specified what it is going to do differently to mitigate these costs. It also has not said whether the projects will still be delayed.
But here’s the real question: If the cost increases were not necessary, why did CMP propose them to begin with? If its infrastructure last week could not handle the load without hundreds of millions of dollars in upgrades, how can it handle it now?
To be clear, CMP’s letter to the commission amounts to a third set of interconnection cost estimates for the same exact projects. It’s hard to imagine what led to this series of blunders, and, from the solar development industry perspective, it’s frightening. Hundreds of millions of dollars of private investment hangs in the balance, as does the future of Maine’s clean energy efforts.
This is why a thorough investigation of CMP’s interconnection process needs to happen. There is something clearly wrong, and we need to understand the problem so it can be fixed. Significant steps appear necessary to assure Mainers that CMP is up to the task of distributing clean, renewable power, and the sooner we understand the shortcomings within CMP’s processes, the sooner we can get back to the promising path toward a carbon-free energy future.