Volume 15 | Issue 1 | Year 2012

About the nation’s infrastructure: It has become a foregone conclusion – It’s deteriorating faster than a mansion in an Edgar Allan Poe story. The House of Usher inexorably falls.

So what do we do? Well, look north, to Maine. The state is engaged in an electricity grid upgrade, and the approach to infrastructure improvement should serve as a model. Spearheading this effort is the Central Maine Power Company (CMP), an enterprise that is making significant financial investments to boost reliability, enhance service and – at the same time – improve its region’s economy by fostering job creation.

CMP is engaged in a $1.4 billion project, and the impact should match the dollars spent. John Carroll, CMP’s manager of public affairs, provides some details. “Essentially, and most importantly, this project is an upgrade to the company’s bulk power system, the high-voltage lines that provide the backbone to Maine’s portion of the New England grid,” he says. “Most of the existing system is about 40 years old, so our recent efforts and investments go toward an updating that will ensure long-term reliability.”

Reliability is the key word (indeed, the key purpose), Carroll says. And to best understand what he means, he takes us back about 40 years, reminding us about a regional infrastructural disaster: the 1965 blackout that darkened a good portion of New England.

“The current system, designed four decades ago, came in response to that blackout,” he says. “It triggered a re-evaluation and reapportioning of the regional grid. So, it was built in the late 1960s and was energized in the early 1970s.”

But that was then; this is now.

Since then, there have been major changes to Maine’s population demographics. “There has been an increase in the population, but there has also been a regional shift,” Carroll says. “With this come major shifts in the location of load, along with the doubling of demand for electricity in the state. So, it is not just more people moving into the state. It’s also about a geographic shift. For instance, when the system was upgraded four decades ago, there wasn’t such a large population concentration in the southern region of the state. Now there is.”

The upshot is that CMP is developing a grid for Maine that is not only stronger, but smarter. Carroll explains: “If you build a grid to serve one part of the state, and then you have a shift in population and load, then you need to go back and re-evaluate. We have a changing population, coupled with a doubling and a shift of the load, so we’ve made the appropriate changes,” he says.

But he adds an important point: “Maine has also seen major changes in power generation, the locations and the type of power generated.”

As such, with all factors considered, CMP developed a plan. But just who is this organization? Well, it’s a subsidiary of Iberdrola USA, and it is Maine’s largest electricity transmission and distribution utility. Output includes about nine billion kilowatt hours of electricity, delivered each year to more than 600,000 homes and businesses (we’re talking about 80 percent of Maine’s yearly electricity sales). The scope of its operations is vast: CMP takes in an 11,000-square mile coverage area, larger than the states of Massachusetts and Rhode Island combined. Of course, it services the large part (78 percent) of its population, commercial and manufacturing centers.

CMP recent efforts – which it terms the Maine Power Reliability Program – includes the construction of five new 345-kilovolt substations and related facilities linked by approximately 442 miles of new transmission lines, Carroll relates.

“Geographically, we are working in 13 of the 16 counties in Maine, and the project’s footprint takes it into numerous communities,” he describes. “This is a project that stretches a long way.”

Indeed, it starts at the Maine/New Hampshire border, and then it extends southward, into a town called Eliot. There, CMP’s system intersects with Public Service of New Hampshire, that state’s largest electrical utility company, which provides service to more than 400,000 homes and businesses. “From there, our system extends into Orrington, an economic center located close to Bangor. That’s where it connects to facilities in the state’s northeast region,” say Carroll, providing more details that help describe the project’s expanse.

So, we’re looking at as many as 75 cities and towns positively impacted by this project.

After a two-year review by local, state and federal agencies, CMP broke project ground in 2010 – and as it progresses, this program represents one of Maine’s largest-ever construction projects undertaken. A 2009 study of the economic impacts of the project, conducted by the Maine Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Southern Maine, estimated that direct employment on the project could spur as many as 800 more jobs in indirect employment.

“Just to give you a timeline sense, planning began in the fall of 2006 and construction began in August 2010,” says Carroll. “Everything is expected to be completed by October 2015.”

And, sure, the project represents an economic stimulus for the state – and that’s important in the recessionary times when unemployment has reached record levels. But the project is more than about economic stimulus; it is also about reliability and growth.

“The first thing that we’re focusing on is reliability, because of the changing nature of the population demographics, which leads to shifting loads and changing energy generation needs – all of which translates into new reliability requirements,” says Carroll. “That’s what’s primarily driving the investment in this project.”

As far as growth, the project will enable CMP to expand its grid, and that doesn’t just mean geography – it also translates into capacity, and that means the fostering of new energy resources. “Over time,” says Carroll, “we want to be able to accommodate the growth of new and renewable energy resources in large parts of the state.”

He points to important examples: “For instance, we’re looking at wind energy, which has become very important in Maine. Right now, we’re looking at on-shore wind, but we are also looking at off-shore wind energy development.”

It doesn’t stop there. “We’re looking to connect with bio-mass plants, and we’re also looking to evaluate projects related sites involved with hydro, wave and solar energy,” informs Carroll.

He adds: “Maine seeks to add new resources – both renewable and non-renewable – and, as such, we’re positioning the grid to have more capacity and geographic reach to serve facilities that can provide such resources.”

The company broke ground after a two-year review by local, state, and federal agencies. Approval reinforces – and advances – the company’s 40-year-old system and opens the door for innovation.

To borrow a cliché, what was once old is now new – and CMP knows how to reinvent itself and the technology it provides.

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