Bangor officials explore switching two municipal buildings to solar power

A ReVision Energy schematic of potential solar installation on top of Union Street Athletic Complex.
Courtesy of ReVision Energy
A ReVision Energy schematic of potential solar installation on top of Union Street Athletic Complex.
Posted April 02, 2014, at 5:13 p.m.
Last modified April 02, 2014, at 8:52 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — A Bangor city councilor wants the city to go solar.

Josh Plourde, one of the council’s newcomers, has been working with ReVision Energy, a Maine-based company that does solar conversion projects for businesses, homes and municipalities across Northern New England, to figure out whether it might be feasible to switch some city-owned buildings to run on the sun.

ReVision started by conducting a free assessment and proposing two projects to put solar panels on a pair of city buildings — the Union Street Athletic Complex and Sawyer Arena. These two facilities have large, slightly pitched roofs that better lend themselves to solar setups than other municipal buildings in the city, according to ReVision. Solar projects on pitched roofs are typically less expensive because they don’t require extra equipment to angle the panels.

“We’re not trying to invest in a new technology just because we think it would be great,” Plourde said, adding that city staff and councilors have a lot of research ahead of them before deciding whether such a project would produce enough savings to warrant substantial investment.

Depending on the effectiveness of these initial two solar projects, the city could look to convert more municipal buildings in the future or become a curator for city residents who want to convert their homes — or neighborhoods — to solar.

Sam Lavallee of ReVision told Plourde that Sawyer and Union Street Athletics are “less-than-perfect” solar sites, but offer the best potential payoff if the city were to decide to invest in a switchover.

ReVision proposed a 190-kilowatt array on top of Sawyer Arena and a 110-kilowatt array on top of Union Street Athletics. The rough cost of these sorts of projects is roughly $3-$3.25 per watt of capacity, according to ReVision. So, Sawyer Arena would cost about $570,000-$617,500 and Union Street would run about $330,000-$357,500. Those numbers are rough, as the projects have not yet even reached the point of going out to requests for proposals.

The costs of solar installations have fallen significantly in recent years, prompting many municipalities, nonprofits, businesses and residents to look into the switch.

“We’re not going to get Bangor off electricity [from the grid] tomorrow, but we can reduce costs,” Plourde said.

City councilors, including Plourde, have said they want to be cautious before moving forward with any sort of solar energy investment. The projected cost is significant, and councilors are already feeling a budget crunch as they glimpse into city finances for the coming fiscal year.

Plourde said city officials are beginning to look into financing options. The city could seek out investors, form a public-private partnership to pay for the panels and installation, or it could enter an agreement with a solar company to install the panels for free and pay for the electricity like any other utility.

For example, ReVision installed a 700-panel solar array, the largest in Maine, at Thomas College at no cost. Instead, the college pays for the service through a power-purchase agreement.

Before the city could determine how many years it would take to see a return on investment from the panels’ energy cost savings, the project would need to go out for proposals, Plourde said.

Councilor James Gallant has solar panels at his home. He said he spent about $8,400 on his system through ReVision. His electric bills, previously around $140 per month, have dropped to around $25 per month, he said. His heating oil consumption has dropped from $400-$500 per year to around $100, he said. Gallant expects to earn his investment back through savings in about six years. He said he’s interested in seeing final numbers on what the costs and benefits of these initial installations might be for the city’s buildings.

During its March 24 meeting, the council voted 7-2 to voice its support for LD 1252, a bill that would re-establish funding for the state’s expired Solar Rebate Program. The ceremonial move was a show of support for the continued development of alternative energy industries, councilors said.

“We’re a state that is unusually dependent on oil and we need to explore all kinds of energy alternatives in order to give ourselves a more supportive economic base,” said Councilor Joe Baldacci.

Councilors Pauline Civiello and David Nealley were the “no” votes and expressed hesitancy throwing support behind solar power without lengthier analysis of the costs and benefits for Bangor and the state.

Several councilors argued the technology has come a long way and that it was worth at least exploring options.

“We’re doing our due diligence to ensure whether any municipal solar would be a healthy investment for the city,” Plourde said.

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