ENERGY

CMP says audit shows no internal problems explain high bills

Central Maine Power Co. says it has nearly completed its internal audit of complaints over high electric bills and can find no problem with its own systems. The power delivery company said it had finished assessing the performance of its new billing software and its smart meter network and could find no anomalies to explain bills that for some customers were two and three times the norm. The extreme bills occurred during a severe cold snap that engulfed the state following Christmas and extending through January. More than 1,000 complaints about high bills were submitted to the Maine Public Utilities Commission, which performed an initial inquiry into the bills that was inconclusive. The regulators are now hiring a consultant to perform a more intensive audit. Read the story.

Solar advocates lose to veto again

The Maine House upheld Gov. Paul LePage’s veto of a bill on solar energy, potentially marking the third straight year of defeat for solar advocates in the Legislature. A bill to change Maine’s solar energy policies passed both legislative chambers by healthy margins only to lose votes in the House when LePage remanded it back to the Legislature. In the most recent example, supporters fell three votes short of overriding LePage’s veto of a bill that would have prohibited utilities from requiring that solar energy users install a second meter to monitor their electricity generation. Bill supporters say not only would the meters allow utilities to charge a fee for solar energy that homeowners generate, but all ratepayers across the state would be forced to help pay the costs of installing those meters. After the 97-52 vote, Democratic leaders used a parliamentary procedure to lay the bill back on the table. That means they will likely attempt to flip votes in the coming days, especially targeting six Republicans who voted for the bill on passage but with LePage on the veto. Read the story.

CMP customers must pay portion of disputed bills

Central Maine Power residential customers who are disputing high winter electric bills will have to pay at least a portion of what’s due, following action Wednesday at the Maine Public Utilities Commission. Maine’s Office of the Public Advocate had requested that CMP be barred from disconnecting home customers while the PUC conducts an investigation into why many of them have reported unexplanable charges, most starting in December. The PUC has been contacted to date by roughly 1,500 customers about high bills. But the PUC decided that such a blanket policy would be unreasonable and attempted to find a middle ground. Commission Chairman Mark Vannoy proposed a plan by which home customers who got bills after Nov. 1, 2017, with delivery charges 25 percent higher than the previous year, could pay what he called the undisputed portion of their bills. Basically, a customer that meets those standards would have to pay at least last year’s delivery usage levels, plus standard offer charges, if applicable, to remain connected. Read the story.

Biomass operator secures partial subsidy

Maine’s struggling forest and wood-energy industries received a boost Wednesday when the Public Utilities Commission voted to approve a portion of a subsidy meant to keep two stand-alone biomass power plants alive, as well as the jobs linked to them. In making the determination, the three commissioners agreed with staff findings that Stored Solar LLC failed to meet all the performance metrics required to get the full subsidy, but had provided enough benefits to get 25 percent of what was possible, or roughly $1.2 million. Controversy had been growing for weeks over whether Stored Solar has adequately met the terms of a 2016 contract, part of a $13.4 million taxpayer-funded bailout approved by the Legislature. While the company hit the benchmark for jobs, it failed to purchase the required amount of wood fuel and to make the required $2.5 million investment. Read the story.

REAL ESTATE & DEVELOPMENT

First phase of Scarbrough Downs development Ok’d

The new owners of Scarborough Downs plan to kick off development of the 500-acre property with a variety of housing projects between Route 1 and the racetrack’s grandstand. The Planning Board unanimously approved a master plan for the first phase of the Crossroads Planned Development District on Thursday night. It calls for construction of a 30-lot single-family subdivision, 24 garden condominiums, 24 duplex cottages, a 56-unit apartment complex and a 12-unit memory care facility spread over 57 acres near the Route 1 entrance to the property. The developers said the goal for the first phase is to create a community of neighborhoods organized along interconnected tree-lined streets, sidewalks, bike lanes and recreational trails through nearby woods and wetlands. The board voted 4-0 for the Phase 1 master plan. Read the story.

Idexx expansion wins board approval

The Westbrook Planning Board has approved an expansion at the veterinary technology firm Idexx Laboratories that will allow for 600 new employees. Following a public hearing Tuesday night, the board voted 7-0 in favor of the expansion. In January, Idexx released details about the addition to its global headquarters in Westbrook. The company estimated the project would cost $62 million and would add a new multi-level, 135,000-square-foot expansion to its existing Synergy Center. Read the story.

MANUFACTURING

Madawaska paper company buys Arkansas mill

A paper company based in Madawaska intends to acquire a mill in Arkansas. Twin Rivers Paper Co. announced Wednesday that it has an agreement to buy a mill in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, that makes unbleached kraft paper, the kind of brown commercial paper used in packaging food, agricultural and industrial products. Terms were not disclosed. Twin Rivers, which is owned by investment firms Atlas Holdings and Blue Wolf Capital, said the acquisition should be completed in the second quarter. Read the story.

TOURISM

Seasonal workforce shortage predicted again

Maine’s hospitality industry is facing another summer labor shortage, made worse by new uncertainty in a foreign worker program used extensively in the state. Last year, some resorts and hotels had to cut back hours, shut blocks of rooms and close earlier than they preferred because not enough H-2B visas were available to make up for a paucity of local workers. The situation is likely to reoccur this year, prompting Maine’s U.S. senators to urge the Trump administration Monday to raise the limit on foreign workers. Within a day of opening the H-2B visa process on Jan. 1, the Department of Labor received applications to certify 81,000 foreign workers, an unprecedented total and more than twice the number of available visas. To deal with the deluge, Citizenship and Immigration Services held a lottery at the end of February to dole out 33,000 visas, leaving tens of thousands of requests unfilled and anxious employers clamoring for relief. Read the story.

Tourism visits up, but spending flat

The number of tourists coming to Maine reached a five-year high last year, but the rate of growth slowed and tourist spending flatlined. Roughly 36.7 million tourists visited Maine in 2017, a 2.5 percent increase over 2016 and about 8.8 million more visitors than in 2012, according to statistics from the Maine Office of Tourism released Wednesday at the annual Governor’s Conference on Tourism in Portland. Visitation grew at a slower clip in 2017 compared with the previous four years, when visits jumped 6 percent a year on average, about three times the national rate, said Steve Lyons, director of the Maine Office of Tourism. Although more tourists came to Maine, their spending increased only 0.4 percent to about $6 billion, virtually flat from the year before. Read the story.

TRANSPORTATION

Frontier to start service from jetport

Low-fare carrier Frontier Airlines plans to begin service this summer out of the Portland International Jetport, with flights from Portland to Denver, Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, and Orlando. The airline announced Wednesday that flights to Denver and Raleigh-Durham will begin in July, and to Orlando in August. The service is currently scheduled to end in November, but Tyri Squyres, the airline’s vice president of marketing, said a decision on whether to extend service, and when to resume flying next year, won’t be made until Frontier can gauge interest in the service. Read the story.

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