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Commentary: Maine Utilities Should Act Now to Protect Grid from Solar Storms

Central Maine Power and Emera Maine have a history of padding their profits at ratepayer expense – the most notable example being the $1.4 billion Maine Power Reliability Program.

Years back, an engineering expert witness on behalf of the Maine Office of the Public Advocate testified that the design for this project was “gold plated.” Incredibly, it’s now come to light that project specifications left out protection for a threat utilities have known about for 25 years – severe solar storms.

Few people are aware of the danger of solar storms, but when the power goes out everyone will learn. Solar storms occur when the sun blasts out particles that travel through space and hit the Earth’s magnetic field. Powerful currents surge through long-distance transmission lines, playing havoc with voltage levels and causing substation transformers to burn out.

On March 13, 1989, a solar storm overwhelmed Quebec grid operators. At 2:45 a.m. the entire province plunged into darkness.

Homes went cold. People in stalled elevators were trapped. When daylight came, businesses couldn’t open; they had no power. In the nine hours it took to restore Quebec’s electric grid, an estimated $10 billion of economic activity was lost.

A quarter-century later, Maine’s electric utilities still haven’t protected homes and businesses against blackouts from solar storms. Because of its high latitude, ocean coastline and granite geology, Maine is perhaps the most vulnerable of all 50 states. Solar storm voltage disruptions from Maine could cascade into other states, causing a blackout throughout New England.

In 2013, the Maine Legislature directed the state’s Public Utilities Commission to study the risk of solar storms and come up with a low-cost solution. After a year, the PUC couldn’t finish the job, so the commission turned over the task to Central Maine Power, which took another year in its own study. Now these groups propose to spend even more time “studying” instead of acting.

Emprimus, a company that makes surge blockers for solar storms, has offered a 50 percent discount to Maine utilities if they will be the first in the nation to protect their grid. The company’s special offer would cost ratepayers only pennies per year – it’s so cheap that even Gov. LePage might support it. But if another state takes the Emprimus offer before Maine decides to act, this savings opportunity will be lost.

What’s causing the delays? Big utilities concentrate their efforts on big projects that cost big money. Protecting against solar storms is comparatively cheap – the equipment cost for the whole state of Maine would be only $2.3 million.

It appears that utilities would rather focus their time and attention on investments with larger financial returns. The new billing system for Central Maine Power would cost $57 million, and it won’t prevent blackouts, but it’s a priority nonetheless.

Maine’s utilities should immediately petition the PUC for regulatory approval to purchase equipment to protect against solar storms – and this request should be quickly granted.

All parties have already had years to study every aspect of the solar storm issue. L.D. 1363 – a solar storm protection bill pending in the state Legislature – could accelerate PUC approval, but after decades of inaction, utilities should move forward regardless of whether this bill passes.

Central Maine Power is owned by Iberdrola, a Spanish company. According to an Oct. 3, 2014, Reuters article titled “Iberdrola CEO’s bumper pay highlights gaps in EU utility salaries,” its chief executive was paid $7.8 million in the previous year. One executive’s annual compensation is several times the equipment cost to protect the electric grid for all the people of Maine.

The next solar storm could happen any day, but Central Maine Power and Emera Maine can’t seem to make a decision about spending a small amount to protect Maine and the rest of New England from catastrophic blackout.

If utilities end up having to pay twice as much for storm surge blockers because of their delays, we know how to protect Maine’s ratepayers: Reduce executive bonuses until the Maine grid is protected.