JONESBORO — An idled Jonesboro wood-fired plant was within hours of producing electricity Monday afternoon when Bangor Hydro-Electric Co. scrapped the arrangement and moved to an alternative plan that company officials said would restore power to Washington County this morning.
Most of Washington County has been without power since Thursday, when last week’s ice storm took down eight miles of Bangor Hydro’s main transmission line between Ellsworth and Cherryfield.
Bangor Hydro spokesman Bill Cohen said his company dropped the Jonesboro plan because the owners of the plant, Indeck Energy Services of Buffalo Grove, Ill., and Ridgewood Power Corp. of Ridgewood, N.J., were asking “an outrageous price” for the Jonesboro power. Cohen said Bangor Hydro talked to local management at the plant Saturday morning and believed they had an agreed upon a price. But when they talked with the owners of the plant Monday, a higher price was offered, Cohen said.
Indeck President Tom Campone and Ridgewood President Robert Swanson say Bangor Hydro contacted them Saturday morning asking them to bring the plant on line and they offered no price to Hydro. Bangor Hydro promised to negotiate “a fair price” Monday morning, they said.
Campone and Swanson said Monday’s negotiations hit a wall at 1 p.m. when Bangor Hydro President Robert Briggs accused them of price gouging during a conference call before Briggs went into a press conference with Gov. Angus King. After that conference, Bangor Hydro issued a press release saying it had asked the Attorney General Andrew Ketterer to investigate Indeck on a charge of profiteering.
Campone and Swanson said they believed they were asking a fair price for starting up an idled plant and generating power. They said they were asking for 5 cents a kilowatt hour. Bangor Hydro was willing to pay 3.7 cents a kilowatt hour, a price that wouldn’t have covered their expenses, they said.
“We were starting this plant and there was a cost of starting it up,” Swanson said. “We would lose a very substantial amount of money at 3.7 cents a kilowatt hour. We do not believe that asking for 5 cents is price gouging.”
Indeck bought the Jonesboro plant a year and a half ago and Ridgewood became a partner in the operation in July 1997. Before the purchase, the plant had sat idle for several years after Bangor Hydro bought out its contract with the former owner.
Campone said the plant produced power for the New England Power Pool and was paid 4.3 cents a kilowatt hour during the summer. That price did not include the cost of starting up the plant, Campone said.
Cohen declined to discuss power prices, saying the situation could result in litigation. He said the numbers Campone and Swanson were quoting are not the ones he heard in the Monday morning conference call among Jonesboro plant owners and Bangor Hydro management.
During Monday’s press conference in Augusta, King said he believed Maine has a law that prohibits profiteering in emergency situations. King has also asked the attorney general to conduct an investigation to determine if price gouging did occur.
Meanwhile, Bangor Hydro began implementing an alternative plan to bring power back to the company’s estimated 10,000 Washington County customers, some as early as 6 p.m. Monday, Cohen said. As of Monday afternoon, Cohen said the company was distributing the 5 megawatts of power that are supplied by a transmission line that runs up Route 1. Diesel generators in Eastport are providing another 3 megawatts, he said. Cohen said Bangor Hydro will tap into a transformer in Deblois for another 10 megawatts and will use portable generators to supply another 4 megawatts.
That will bring a total of 22 megawatts into Washington County, and peak load is just 20 megawatts, Cohen said. Bangor Hydro will bring in additional portable generators to use for backup, he said.
“If all goes as planned, Washington County should be back on line late tonight or early tomorrow morning,” Cohen said Monday. There are some customers that will remain without power because of problems with the distribution system, but the company has no accurate figures on that, Cohen said.
Cohen said Bangor Hydro was working on the alternative plan and two other plans at the same time they were talking with managers at the Jonesboro plant Saturday and they brought the portable generators into Washington County Sunday. The bottom line was the cost, he said.
“It’s always harder to run four or five generation sources than it is to run one, but we don’t think Bangor Hydro customers should have to pay an outrageous price for power.” Cohen said, referring to the Indeck plant.
Thomas Welch, chairman of the Maine Public Utility Commission, said he expects Maine utilities to ask the commission for a rate increase to cover the costs of cleanup, restoration and replacement power.
Washington County sheriff’s deputies continued their rounds with portable generators donated by the Georgia-Pacific Corp. Monday. The deputies have been asking selectmen throughout the county to identify elderly or sick people who had no source of power. The deputies have been calling on those people and using the generators to bring their homes up to a livable temperature.
A call to the Jonesboro wood-fired plant on Monday evening confirmed that the plant has been shut down and the staff sent home. Based on the conversation plant managers had with Hydro, the plant began firing up its steam boiler Saturday night and was within an hour of producing electricity when the deal fell through Monday.