Complaint Against CMP Leads to Results; Advocate Assists Locals Opposed to New Power Line
August 7, 2003
This week the Public Utilities Commission approved an agreement between all the major parties in a complaint case that examined the need for and the proper location of a new power line to serve several towns in southern York County. The Towns of York, Kittery and Eliot, along with a group of citizens led by Laurie Downs, the York Conservation Commission and the Town of Ogunquit all agreed that the final proposal put forth by CMP to resolve the case was acceptable.
The case began last fall when the Public Advocate filed a request for an investigation at the Commission into CMP’s approach to solving transmission capacity issues. That request was closely followed by a 10-person complaint initiated by Ms. Downs. In meetings beginning last summer, CMP had failed to convince the local townspeople that there was, in fact, a need for the line. Also, CMP’s proposed route for the line at that time crossed environmentally sensitive areas and would spoil several scenic views in the area, especially where the Maine Turnpike crosses the York River. These concerns led to the requests filed at the Commission. When the utility failed to justify its plans in response to those complaints, the Commission formally opened an investigation, consolidating the two complaints.
“Normally, a utility does not require Commission approval for a transmission line of this size (69kilovolts)” said Eric Bryant, Senior Counsel in the Office of the Public Advocate, “but CMP made two mistakes that caused us and the local citizens to complain, which in turn led to the investigation. One, it failed to convince local citizens that the line was needed. Second, its proposed route was designed mostly with the delivery of electricity in mind and not the desires of the locals. This may have been a public relations failure on their part, or maybe it was the result of skepticism in the town, or some combination. At any rate, the complaint process afforded to utility ratepayers by statute allows them to seek relief when they have a problem with their utility. In this matter, that process worked just as it should. The customers were not happy with CMP’s proposal and they sought, and got, relief.”
After the Commission opened its investigation, the Public Advocate hired a consulting firm to determine whether the southern York county area in fact needed the line. The consultant, Synapse Energy Economics out of Cambridge Mass, determined that the line was needed, but that there was a better place to put it. Synapse proposed that the new line be built in an existing transmission right of way that already contained one line, the line that in fact served York and was nearing its capacity. There was room within that right of way for second line so that CMP did not have to construct its proposed line through the sensitive areas, including over the turnpike bridge. In fact a CMP consultant had suggested this route. The PUC staff also submitted a report suggesting that either CMP’s original proposal or the alternative route would be acceptable electrically, but that other issues remained to be addressed. Importantly, the Staff then decided that it needed to notify the towns along the alternative route so that they could participate in the case if they so desired.
Also, along the way the Commission held a public hearing at York High School where 35 people spoke very coherently and compassionately about their town and the impact CMP’s original proposal would have. All this sent CMP back to the drawing board where it eventually designed the line that has now been approved by the Commission.
CMP’s redesigned proposal was not only better than CMP’s original plan, but it’s revised cost estimates revealed that the alternative solution proposed by the Public Advocate was more expensive. According to Bryant, “once the new plan, and the cost comparisons, came into focus, the townspeople realized they had a good deal, and agreement was quickly reached.”
“CMP was not happy that it had to jump through so many hoops, but I believe that the process worked,” said Bryant. “If customers cannot get good answers to legitimate questions about an essential service from a monopoly utility, they should be able to bring the utility in before the Commission and make them give the answers. The process allows the company the opportunity to convince the Commission that the complaint is without merit, but in this case, CMP failed to do so.”
A 10-person complaint, like the one at the heart of this matter, is where any 10 customers of a utility, meaning any 10 account holders, may join together in asking for relief from a rate, term, condition or practice of the utility. According to Bryant, “it is a useful tool that served well the folks in York, Kittery and neighboring towns.”
The Office of the Public Advocate is a state agency charged with representing the interests of ratepayers of electric, telephone, water and natural gas utilities regulated by the Maine Commission and certain federal agencies. Contact: Eric J. Bryant, Senior Counsel, Office of the Public Advocate 207 -287-2445