Clean-energy advocates and other parties have reached a settlement with Central Maine Power aimed at easing long delays in hooking up solar projects and are asking the Maine Public Utilities Commission to approve the terms.

The agreement would require CMP to spend $700,000 in shareholder money, of which $550,000 would fund up to six new contractor positions over two years to support the interconnection process. The other $150,000 would help continue an industry/utility working group that has been meeting to identify and troubleshoot problems with grid connections.

As part of the settlement, CMP also would have to acknowledge that, in hindsight, it should have identified the scope of “over-voltage” problems sooner and communicated that information to solar developers.

The Maine Renewable Energy Association, the Coalition for Solar Access, the Maine Public Advocate’s Office and others have joined CMP in signing the deal, known as a stipulated agreement. It would resolve issues raised in cases now before the PUC.

The agency must decide whether to accept the terms, which it typically does with stipulations that are broadly supported. The stipulation was expected to be filed late Monday.

“In order to reach Maine’s clean energy goals, we must have a firm and forward-looking commitment from developers, regulators, policymakers and utilities to work together to address challenges and find solutions,” CMP’s president and CEO, Joe Purington, said in a statement Monday. “We have made great strides to date, and this settlement was an opportunity to ensure momentum by providing a framework to help us work more collaboratively and effectively.”

CMP said it has already hired more than 100 employees and contractors to support the applications and studies. It noted two important roles it plays in this process: Ensure safe and reliable service on its distribution system and help make sure projects connecting to the region’s transmission system don’t cause damage or erode reliability.

Asked about progress to date, the utility said it hooked up nearly 100 megawatts worth of small-scale solar projects in 2021, enough capacity to power 16,400 homes. CMP added that it has 468 active projects with signed interconnection agreements that are being studied, representing 1,741 megawatts.

Maine has ambitious goals to fight climate change by encouraging residents to heat homes and drive cars powered by electricity, not oil and gas. Large-scale solar projects will be critical to powering this envisioned clean energy economy, and hundreds of projects already have been proposed.

But the transformation could take many years. And if solar farms can’t hook into the power grid – for whatever reason – that’s an immediate problem.

Maine’s fast-growing solar industry was in an uproar last February, complaining that CMP was causing unexpected delays and requesting last-minute, multimillion-dollar charges to connect solar farms to the company’s substations. After Gov. Janet Mills called for an investigation, CMP said it had found some technical solutions to do the work faster and cheaper. Top management and engineers said they had instituted ways to slash substation upgrades from as much as $15 million to less than $375,000.

But for the solar industry, many questions remain unanswered. Last spring, the two trade groups asked the PUC to formally open an investigation, which it did on April 6. Among the issues: When did CMP learn the extent of the so-called “over-voltage” problems it faced trying to satisfy hundreds of new interconnection requests? Was the response prudent?

The initial PUC probe focused on connections at the local distribution level. But in August, the industry also asked the PUC to look into delays caused by the need for so-called cluster studies, which analyze the transmission system impact of hooking up multiple projects at a common substation, for instance. Those studies are required by ISO New England, the regional grid operator.

Meanwhile, ongoing delays are threatening to cancel some ventures and have led some community solar developers to tell customers that projects are being delayed by as much as a year.

The proposed settlement won’t solve all these problems, according to Jeremy Payne, executive director of the Maine Renewable Energy Association.

“But we think it’s important to acknowledge that they (CMP) need more resources,” he said.

The industry also is hoping the settlement terms will lead to more clarity on interconnection schedules, Payne said. Developers need to know because of the impact on financing and construction costs. And customers are expecting certain savings from solar at some specific point.

“In fairness to any utility, these (studies) aren’t overnight reviews,” Payne said. “But customers want to know, ‘When are these savings happening?’ ”

Other signatories to the agreement are the Industrial Energy Consumer Group, the Natural Resources Council of Maine and Con Edison Clean Energy Business.

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