August 14, 2018
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Why Maine towns and cities are investing in solar projects

Josh Gerritsen | Town of Lincolnville
Josh Gerritsen | Town of Lincolnville
Lincolnville's municipal solar array near the Route 52 fire station.
By Abigail Curtis, BDN Staff

Even on an overcast day, David Kinney feels a warm glow when he looks up at the 144 solar panels installed in a grassy field located right next to the Lincolnville Fire Station off Route 52.

And on a sunny day, for the longtime Lincolnville town administrator, that satisfaction keeps growing. Just like the way the numbers of kilowatt hours the solar array generates for the town have been growing since the project went online at the end of 2016. Last year, the grid-tied panels converted sunshine into more than 56,000 kilowatt hours of electricity — enough to keep a year’s worth of lights on at both of the town’s fire stations, the town office, the sand and salt building, Breezemere Park, the town pier and on the sidewalks at Lincolnville Beach.

Moving away from fossil fuel-driven energy has felt to many residents like the right thing to do, and it also has been good for the town’s bottom line, Kinney said.

“It’s proving its worth,” he said, adding that he would encourage officials from other Maine communities to think about installing municipal solar arrays of their own. “You owe it to your citizens to look at alternatives to what you’re doing. You just can’t continue to do what you’ve done in the past. We’re spending other people’s money, and we need to do that wisely.”

Solar on the move in Maine

It turns out, a lot of decision-makers in Maine cities and towns are on the same page. Solar projects on rooftops, in closed landfills and in other places have taken off in municipalities including Belfast, South Portland, Stockton Springs, Camden, Bar Harbor, Waldoboro, Waterville and Boothbay, among others. There are well over 25 existing municipal solar projects around the state, and the number is growing.

In the past decade, disparate factors have come together that have made it much more affordable to install arrays both big and small, experts said. The price of solar panel pieces has plummeted in the past 10 years, experts said. A sizeable federal tax credit for renewable energy systems that doesn’t expire until 2021 has also really helped to entice municipalities to explore solar projects.

Some folks are even taking a more regional approach to renewable energy. A group of residents on Mount Desert Island is working toward energy independence for the island by 2030.

It’s not just about the bottom line, of course, said Dylan Voorhees, the climate and clean energy project director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine. But without the benefit of the bottom line, it’s unlikely that so many municipal projects would be getting off the ground.

“It works for rural Maine. It’s not a political thing. It’s about economics,” he said. “I think that there are communities where the environment matters. But folks are really in touch with town budgets. They pay for them through property taxes directly. I think that’s the fundamental thing — saving money is important across the board. And I think the long-term stability and predictability of it is really attractive to municipalities.”

John Butler | Sundog Solar
John Butler | Sundog Solar
Municipal solar array at Stockton Springs town garage.

Room for growth

Maine, though, is not leading the nation or even New England in terms of solar energy adoption. In Vermont and other states, more solar arrays are erected on the side of the road or on residential and other rooftops than exist in Maine. In the Pine Tree State, solar energy projects recently have not had a lot of encouragement from political leaders including Gov. Paul LePage, who has used his veto pen repeatedly to kill bills that would support the solar power industry. In comparison, Vermont, which has many more solar installation companies and more solar arrays, has state policies in place that support the industry, including net metering rules that allow for compensation for small power generators.

“In Maine, we are artificially driving up the cost of solar. Thankfully, that’s not stopping municipalities, but it’s definitely making [projects] harder,” Voorhees said. “We’re making it harder for solar to be accessible by keeping the lid on the industry.”

Still, Maine solar installation companies such as ReVision Energy, Sundog Solar and Insource Renewables have been busy getting projects such as municipal solar arrays off the ground. Municipalities often take advantage of something called a solar power purchase agreement, a financial arrangement in which a developer owns, operates and maintains the system, and the customer agrees to host the system and purchase its electric output from the solar services provider for a predetermined period. The rates are guaranteed and usually a little less than the current standard electric offer. David Kinney appreciates that his town’s bills are now more consistent than before. In Lincolnville, where the electricity generated by the solar panels is fed back to the power grid, the town writes a monthly check to ReVision Energy and to Central Maine Power for transmission.

“Our bills are pretty consistent,” Kinney said.

Chuck Piper of Searsport-based Sundog Solar said that municipalities the company has been working with signs a contract with Sundog to install the solar systems. Those systems, which must be paid for upfront, are purchased with the help of equal-opportunity lender Coastal Enterprises, Inc. The towns buy the solar power at a reduced rate, and the money helps to satisfy the loan. At the end of the loan, municipalities will own their solar arrays outright, thus reducing the cost of electricity even more.

“It’s a nice arrangement for municipalities,” Piper, the co-owner of the company, said. “And municipalities are filling up our dance card. It is good work, and we’re able to offer some good jobs.”

That’s despite, not because of, the current political climate, he said.

“People want solar. They want clean energy. They want energy independence,” he said. “Utility companies across the region want people to continue to pay $100 per month for the rest of their lives, and we’re offering a chance for energy independence.”

A goal of energy independence

John Luft of ReVision Energy, based in Liberty, said that installing projects such as the one by the Lincolnville fire station seem to be wins all around.

“Communities across Maine, New England and America want to see change,” he said. “We live in very, very polarized times. This is an area where people are actually coming together.”

And there is much more that can be done, he and others believe. Germany, with more than 82 million people and a robust economy, is a leader in renewable energy.

“On a sunny day in Germany, they get all their power from the sun,” Luft said, adding that at best, Maine generates about 1 percent of its electricity from the sun. “And we get 33 more sunny days than Germany. Maine is sitting on an incredible resource, and Maine is missing out.”

But some Mainers are working to change that, regardless of state or federal leadership. Joe Blotnick, the co-coordinator of A Climate to Thrive on Mount Desert Island, said his group has about 1,200 people on its mailing list, comprising residents from all over the island. They work with businesses, municipalities and citizens in an effort to reach the goal of energy independence by 2030 — just more than 10 years from now. In the past two and a half years, they have worked to install 76 new solar arrays on homes around the island. A Climate To Thrive helped double the solar capacity on MDI, and they have goals to double it again in 2019 and again in 2020.

They’re doing that now through larger projects, such as one being worked on now in the town of Tremont. If residents give the project final approval at Tremont’s annual town meeting, which is coming up Saturday, Aug. 4, it will provide solar electricity for all town buildings and the school.

“It’s really inspired the community to think about the future,” Blotnick said. “We’ve had to do the work at the local level, and it’s working because it makes economic sense.”

But there’s no denying the rush he gets on a sunny day, when solar panels around the island he loves are generating clean electricity to power it — electricity that comes from the sun and is far removed from fossil fuels.

“It’s really great,” he said. “A really good feeling.”

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