Big batteries and efficiency are chosen as an alternative to a new Brunswick-Topsham power line, thanks to a new law that pushes utilities to explore new ways to assure reliability.
BY TUX TURKEL STAFF WRITER
On a scorching summer evening a few years from now, big batteries at locations that might include Bowdoin College or the Topsham Fair Mall could discharge for five hours or so into the area’s electric distribution system. Commercial air-conditioning units around Brunswick and Topsham may briefly cycle down to reduce power demand, along with refrigeration units at supermarkets and restaurants.
These and other measures will help assure that the lights stay on during periods of high power demand for roughly 8,000 Central Maine Power customers in Brunswick, Topsham and Harpswell.
CMP could achieve a similar level of reliability in this area by totally rebuilding an aging, 5-mile transmission line. But energy experts found that just installing new poles and wires would be a more expensive solution. Instead, they’ve come up with a strategy to trim power use at crucial moments. If it works, the old transmission line will come down.
Maintaining reliability without new transmission lines is called a “non-wires alternative.” The alternative plan ramping up soon in Brunswick and Topsham was approved this month at the Public Utilities Commission. It’s the first case under a 2019 law aimed at reducing future electric costs and, in this instance, projected to save customers $8.5 million over the project’s lifetime.
That’s not a big number by itself, and it’s a savings off bills years in the future. But the recent PUC approval is worth noting because it’s part of a new way of planning utility investments in Maine. It’s happening as New England faces the potential of spending billions of dollars to upgrade the grid to handle an accelerated shift to an electrified economy, a future of plug-in cars and heat pumps, powered largely by solar and wind generation.
Part of that planning process is making sure the state’s transmission and distribution systems can handle demand during the hottest and coldest hours of the year, when air conditioners are blasting or heaters are straining. Non-wires alternatives such as battery storage and energy efficiency hold the promise of maintaining reliability without building costly transmission capacity that’s rarely needed.
In this instance, power now flowing over the old transmission line will be rerouted to different, existing circuits that will undergo some cost-effective upgrades. That’s how electricity will get to the batteries, and to everything else.
Think of it like highway construction, said Michael Stoddard, executive director of Efficiency Maine, the state’s conservation agency. It’s expensive to build and maintain extra travel lanes on a highway that are only congested during holiday weekends.
“This is like being able to get away with one less lane on the highway,” Stoddard said.
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