BAR HARBOR, Maine — When it comes to renewable energy development projects and finding new ways to finance them, there have been many “firsts” in Maine over the past decade or so.
Solar projects, using photovoltaic cells to generate electricity, have become popular throughout the state in recent years, and one that recently has been approved in Bar Harbor was celebrated Monday as the first community solar “farm” to be permitted on a publicly owned property.
A small crowd gathered Monday morning at the town’s public works site off Crooked Road to mark the start of the development of the solar array, which will involve the installation of 188 panels on the roof of a vehicle storage building. Local residents and municipal officials, officials with ReVision Energy, and U.S. Sen. Angus King were among the 40 or so people at the event.
The project is expected to generate 59,000 kilowatt-hours each year for six local electricity users — four homeowners, one apartment building and Peekytoe Provisions, a retail seafood business on Main Street.
Though located on town property, the solar project is not being financed by the town, nor is it generating electricity for the town, which already has installed its own solar panels on the same property on the roof of the main public works building. The new solar array will generate lease income for the town, but it is being paid for solely by the cooperative’s members, who each contributed $1,000 or more to get the project up and running.
John Luft, branch manager for ReVision Energy, said Monday that there are six other private, member-financed solar farms in Maine, all of which are located on private property and are in Central Maine Power’s service area in southern and western Maine. The one in Bar Harbor will be the first on publicly owned land and the first in Emera’s transmission area in eastern and northern Maine, he said.
Josh Ehrlich, a member of the local solar cooperative, said he is glad that construction of the Bar Harbor project is getting under way.
“It’s the right thing to do,” he said, adding that it took more than a year of planning and permitting before work could start. “It’s exciting that we’re finally moving forward.”
Ehrlich said that the practice of net-metering — a regulated process by which entities that generate electricity for themselves can get credit for excess power they send back into the grid at the same rate that they pay for power when they need it — helps make solar power development financially feasible for small-scale residential users such as himself. The state is considering whether to alter the mandated financial equation for net-metering, however, which could alter the financial implications for small-scale users looking to install their own power-generation devices, such as solar panels or wind turbines.
“We hope that the Public Utilities Commission supports what we’re doing, as opposed to trying to take away our ability to invest in our own future,” Ehrlich said.
Gary Friedmann, vice chairman of the local Town Council and a proponent of the project, said the solar farm fits into a separate, citizen-led initiative on Mount Desert Island called “ A Climate to Thrive,” which has a goal of making MDI energy independent by 2030. He said that if every existing and suitable rooftop on the island were outfitted with solar panels, they could generate 85 percent of the entire island’s energy needs.
But he said the state needs to do more to help preserve financial incentives for small-scale solar power development.
Renewable energy generation is needed in order to reduce Maine’s dependence on fossil fuels, the use of which is causing climate change and threatening the environment for future generations, Friedmann added.
“If Maine is going to continue to lead in the sustainable economy we’re going to have to come up with better legislation and better ways of integrating and encouraging solar energy in this state,” Friedmann said.
Sen. King steered clear of political criticism in his remarks about the budding solar farm in Bar Harbor. He spoke about the practical aspects of pursuing renewable power development in Maine.
“We have a tremendous solar resource and tremendous solar potential in this state,” King said.
The economics of installing solar panels, for which the cost has come down through improved technology and increased demand, is much more viable than it was a few decades ago, King said. Not only is solar power development good for the environment, he said, but it’s good for consumers, too.
“Solar is now competitive with virtually any [other] form of energy — competitive,” King said, stressing the last word. “And it’s going to become more so.”
Many other businesses, municipalities and nonprofit institutions in Maine have implemented or are pursuing similar solar power development projects. For example, last year Belfast installed 180 panels on the roof of its fire station while in Freeport, town officials are helping to arrange group purchases of solar panels that residents would have installed on their properties.