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Utilities say climate change future already forcing changes

“When it comes to climate change, the biggest concerns I think of on the impact to our grid are the frequency and intensity of wind and rain events we are seeing.”

BATH, Maine — Water and electricity do not mix, said Adam Desrosiers, vice president of electric operations for Central Maine Power.

That basic fact led the company to invest $15 million to replace an older and occasionally flooded substation in Bath. It also symbolizes the company’s efforts to begin safeguarding the grid against the impact of climate change.

The Bath substation is in a low area of the city, close to the river level. Desrosiers said Friday it would occasionally flood during heavy rains, particularly at times of exceptionally high tides, when the rainwater doesn’t run off as easily.  

Flooding forces a shutdown of the substation, cutting power to about 4,000 customers, including Bath Iron Works, located directly across Washington Street.

So the company replaced the whole substation with a new one, which has the key components raised much higher off the ground, safely out of the way of future flooding.

“It's something with climate change we’re focused on, identifying stations that have a flood risk,” Desrosiers said.

And while he said the company so far doesn’t have other stations with a current flood problem, analyzing risk from climate change has become a key to planning and upgrading the company’s entire system.

“When it comes to climate change, the biggest concerns I think of on the impact to our grid are the frequency and intensity of wind and rain events we are seeing,” Desrosiers said. “This [is] historically causing the most problems for us.”

The state’s two major electric utilities, CMP and Versant Power, have been under intense scrutiny from legislators and state regulators, and a petition drive is gathering signatures aimed at forcing a consumer takeover of both companies.

As a result, the utilities are being pressured by the governor, regulators, and the public to improve reliability, meaning fewer outages and quicker recoveries.

For Desrosier, the first line of defense is making the power lines more resistant to damage.

“We have gone to a stronger pole. Any time we replace a pole, we go to a stronger class 2 pole. And we are installing covered conductor whenever we can on the system which will limit problems from tree contact when installed.”

Both steps, he said, will reduce the need for long and costly repairs when power is knocked out.

Desrosiers said the other steps involve newer technology for substations and for the grid control system to sense outages more quickly and be able to redirect circuits to reduce the number of customers without power.

Both utilities said the investments in greater reliability will make the system more dependable in years to come, even as temperatures and weather may become more extreme.

“We create things, poles and wires, to serve customers 40 years, 50 years or more, so we think long term all the time,” Judy Long, a spokeswoman for Versant, said. “Is it easy to predict what things will look like long term? Not always.”

Climate experts said weather patterns will become less predictable, storms and precipitation more severe and more erratic in the years ahead. They said those factors mean they need to reinforce the grid to stand up to more intense weather.

“You will see a tremendous focus coming on a lot of automation to really reduce interruptions to customers,” Desrosier said, adding it should pay off in the form of fewer outages, despite climate change and the increasing severity of wind and rain.

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