On an otherwise unremarkable day last December, something powerful happened in the city of Belfast.
That was when the city’s new 5-acre solar installation went online at the site of the still-under-construction public works facility off Crocker Road. And when it did, the 660-kilowatt project — along with two other solar projects built within the past few years — allowed the city to offset almost 90 percent of its municipal electric costs.
It’s a good feeling, said Belfast City Councilor Eric Sanders, a founding member of the city’s energy committee. Since it was formed half a decade ago, the committee has been working to reduce the amount of fossil fuels used by the city and to lower greenhouse gas and air pollutions emissions there.
“Every time we start getting meters clicking, we say to ourselves, that’s what’s supposed to happen,” he said. “I view solar like people probably did telephone poles 100 years ago: It’s going to happen. How do we best place ourselves as a leader for our citizens?”
In a way, Belfast’s answer to that question has been its willingness to experiment with ideas and to find people who are able to turn those ideas into realities. The city started doing that about five years ago, after City Councilor Mike Hurley started thinking about the amount of money spent every year on energy costs.
In 2013, the city spent about $320,000 in oil, gas and electricity for its nine municipal buildings, which include City Hall, the police department, the fire station, the public works building and the wastewater treatment plant.
“It made me angry, that we were spending 10 percent of our yearly budget on electricity and oil,” Hurley said. “Could we do anything to offset this? And what could we do?”
As the energy committee began its work, one answer became obvious: switch to solar. The first project undertaken was the installation of a $150,000 solar array on the roof of the fire station, which went online in 2014.
The following year, Belfast became the first municipality in Maine to build a solar array on a closed landfill with its Pitcher Road project. Then came the Crocker Road project, which with 2,500 panels is the largest of the three.
And even in a time of decreased municipal revenue sharing from the state and increased efforts to trim the fat from the municipal budget, getting the projects funded was not that hard, the councilors said.
“The council made a determination in the budget that if we saved money from the solar, that could be our seed money for the next project,” Sanders said. “We only invested the savings. It’s self-sustaining. It’s hard to say no to a committee that is funding itself through energy savings to the city. You’d be paying for the electricity anyway.”
In addition to Sanders and Hurley, the energy committee has included three citizens with a lot of expertise in related fields: Matt O’Malia, the principal architect and co-founder of Belfast-based design firm GO Logic; Jonathan Fulford, the founder of Artisan Builders in Monroe; and environmental scientist Andrew Carpenter, who founded Northern Tilth, a Belfast company that provides organic waste recycling technical services.
The committee also features Belfast City Planner Sadie Lloyd Mudge, described by Sanders as akin to a secret weapon.
“We would not have been able to do it without Sadie,” he said. “She’s such a young, fierce, positive proponent for change. She ran the meetings. And from that incubator has come wholesale change in the city.”
Lloyd Mudge, who has advised other Maine municipalities on their own energy projects, said that the Belfast projects are all intended to provide long-term benefits to the city.
The new public works solar farm, a $1.6 million project, will generate roughly $100,000 in electricity per year, and become “cash positive,” she said, in its third year — when the money saved in electricity costs is greater than its bond payment. Its price tag does not include the cost of the property or the construction of three-phase electric power lines to bring the generated power to the grid.
According to City Manager Joe Slocum, those costs are included with the $6.65 million price tag for the brand-new public works facility.
The other two solar power systems generate about $25,000 worth of electricity per year, Lloyd Mudge said, and are power purchase agreements with no upfront cost to the city. The installer, ReVision Energy of Liberty, was the investor for those two projects, and the city has the option to buy out those systems in their seventh year, Lloyd Mudge said.
With a 14-year payback schedule and a 40-year life expectancy, even taking into considering maintenance and replacement costs over the next decades, she said the city can look forward to the future.
“That’s 26 years of free electricity,” she said, adding that until payback, the city will pay roughly the same cost for electricity that it would if it simply purchased power from Central Maine Power.
The public works project, however, is owned outright with the city, which receives federal renewable energy credits because of it.
Other benefits to Belfast include the fact that the city now can make energy-efficient building upgrades and retrofits. For example, the wastewater treatment plant soon will be run on renewable energy, after the installation of a pellet boiler for heating and ventilation, and there is now a plan to retrofit the police station with heat pumps.
“That will raise our electricity usage by a lot, but it’s part of the reason why the council is building these solar arrays,” the planner said. “The energy work is very fulfilling work. And really, it’s nice to do. By the council being able to budget the same amount for energy every year and seeing savings, you can definitely tell that the projects are working.”
Correction: An earlier version of this report misstated the size of the solar array off Crocker Road in Belfast