Large-scale generation projects are being reviewed or delayed, without legislation to make them more financially viable.
By Peter McGuire, Staff Writer
Portland Press Herald news story
Several Maine communities are reconsidering or shelving plans to build large-scale solar energy projects in the aftermath of a failed bid to reform Maine’s solar regulations.
A handful of cities and towns, including Falmouth, Portland, South Portland and Rockland, were planning to install photoelectric panels on top of capped landfills that otherwise have no use. The installations could provide renewable power to municipal buildings, schools and streetlights and reduce municipal electricity costs.
The projects appealed to residents who want to reduce carbon emissions. And private solar developers were expected to invest millions of dollars to build the arrays.
However, the projects needed the Legislature to change the way solar producers are compensated for the power they generate and allow larger projects to offset their construction costs. Gov. Paul LePage vetoed that legislation last month, and the Maine Public Utilities Commission will soon consider whether to change the existing system for crediting small-scale solar power generators who feed energy back into the grid. The regulatory challenges and uncertainty about the future have stopped at least one municipal solar project before it got off the ground, and thrown others into limbo.
Cumberland canceled a presentation last week by TRC Engineers about a planned solar project on its landfill, citing uncertainty with state rules. “I did explain to the council that without the state support, solar farms may not be possible,” Town Manager Bill Shane wrote in an email to TRC immediately after the bill died.
Rockland also was in the screening process for solar sites, but it likely won’t go anywhere now, said City Councilor Larry Pritchett.
“Certainly any project that would go forward now would be less attractive than one that would have been permitted under the proposed rules,” Pritchett said.
STILL BARRIERS FOR LARGE PROJECTS
Officials in some of the communities said the veto and failed override effort won’t necessarily end their quests for landfill solar projects, but will at least delay and complicate them.
“The bill would have removed some of the barriers that constrict the projects. We can work around it, but it is more difficult,” said Julie Rosenbach, South Portland’s sustainability coordinator.
Municipal solar projects rely on private developers to construct the arrays and sell the power to the municipality for about six years, when the community purchases the installation and begins to produce its own power. It would take more than a decade to pay off a system, but when it did, the municipality would be producing its own power for free.
The ability to make money on excess power has been a key part of the plans.
Right now, small-scale solar power generators can get a one-to-one credit for the excess power they generate and deliver back to the grid, something called net metering. Customers can offset their electricity bills with the credits and use the money saved to pay down the cost of installing solar equipment.
However, the credits are limited to relatively small power generators and don’t match up well with the larger-scale municipal projects.
State policy restricts the size of installations eligible for net metering to 660 kilowatts and only allows solar farms to feed 10 meters at a time. Additionally, large electricity users such as water treatment plants cannot offset their power charges with electricity credits.
The failed solar bill, L.D. 1649, would have changed those rules as part of an effort to dramatically increase the amount of solar-generated electricity in Maine from 18 megawatts to 250 megawatts in five years. According to the national Solar Energy Industries Association, 250 megawatts of power is enough to power about 41,000 homes.
PUC REVIEW RAISES SOLAR CONCERNS
The bill would have replaced electricity credits with long-term, fixed-price contracts for solar power that would provide solar-generating customers with money to pay down their costs. The bill also would have increased the cap on solar projects to 2,000 kilowatts and eliminated the restriction of 10 meters per installation.
It was developed during a nearly year-long stakeholder process and endorsed by solar developers, the state’s power companies, environmentalists and others. But it was opposed by LePage and Republicans in the Legislature, who argued that the plan would provide a subsidy to solar customers and raise the cost of electricity for other ratepayers.
The bill was killed last month after the House of Representatives fell two votes shy of the two-thirds majority needed to override LePage’s veto.
In the aftermath, the Maine PUC is moving ahead with a separate review of the state’s net metering policy, and some solar developers worry that it will change the credit system and make solar power less attractive. Some fear the commission could follow the path taken by Nevada, which this year increased charges and decreased credits for solar users, thereby eliminating the incentive for installing solar.
PUC Executive Director Harry Lanphear said in an email that commissioners will start the net metering review in the near future, likely this summer, and would consider input from all interested parties. “The outcome of this process may address the issue of customers with existing net energy billing contracts, as well as customers who enter into new net energy billing contracts,” he said.
Officials in the communities pursuing solar projects are among those waiting and watching.
Falmouth hoped to put a solar array out to bid this summer and already had conducted engineering and feasibility studies for a solar farm that would cap its landfill and generate up to 25 percent of the town’s power. Those plans have been shelved until state rules get cleared up, said Nathan Poore, Falmouth’s town manager.
“We would have most definitely had a viable project if (the bill) had passed, but now it is much less viable,” Poore said. “I still have confidence that someday we are going to have solar on that landfill, it is just not going to happen as soon as we would like.”
The town may still pursue a landfill or rooftop solar project, but it will likely be much smaller because of the limit of 10 users, or accounts.
A joint Portland-South Portland proposal to build twin 660-kilowatt arrays, costing $2.5 million each, on the cities’ capped landfills, along with four rooftop arrays on Portland buildings, also may be reconsidered. The project would have produced around 3.5 percent of Portland’s power and roughly 12 percent of South Portland’s power.
“Our basic goal is to offset our energy use with clean, renewable energy. We have this awesome resource that is open space in our landfill that you can’t use for anything else,” said Rosenbach, the South Portland sustainability coordinator.
South Portland already has put a solar array on its planning office, among other eco-friendly projects, and viewed the landfill project as the next step. “The thing is, we are really interested in doing solar, we just have to weigh the risks of moving forward in an uncharted climate right now,” Rosenbach said.
SUCCESSES IN MAINE, MASSACHUSETTS
The legislative defeat hasn’t halted all solar power development in Maine.
While the atmosphere isn’t attractive for municipal solar projects, colleges such as Bowdoin and Colby have invested in solar systems that send electricity directly to their buildings, without going through the grid and relying on net metering credits. Madison Electric is building a large system to make power for its customers. Ranger Solar, a Yarmouth company, plans to construct a 50-megawatt installation at the Sanford airport to sell power directly to private clients.
The difference is those projects don’t rely on credits or excess power revenue to be viable.
Advocates of the solar bill said Maine’s rules suppress the solar industry’s growth in the state, including the development of municipal projects, and argue that Maine lags far behind other New England states in solar development.
Nearly every municipality in Massachusetts hosts a solar project, and that state’s Legislature recently increased a cap on net metering, allowing more large-scale projects to move ahead, according to the Massachusetts Municipal Association. The Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources even publishes a 42-page guide specifically for developing solar on capped landfills.
POTENTIAL FOR ENERGY COST SAVINGS
Municipal projects in Maine, by contrast, have been small rooftop solar installations.
The Maine Municipal Association has estimated there are 1,800 acres of capped landfills in the state. If 40 percent of that acreage was developed for solar, the landfills could generate electricity equivalent to $25 million in costs currently being paid by towns and cities in power bills, the association estimates.
Maine does have one landfill solar development.
Belfast, which lies next to Penobscot Bay, has a 396-panel array constructed and operated by ReVision Solar, a leading solar installer in Maine.
Sadie Lloyd, Belfast’s assistant city planner, said the array is capable of producing 120 kilowatts, and when combined with panels on the fire station roof, provides roughly 20 percent of the city’s energy needs.
“To be able to offset our electricity bill by 20 percent is a big deal,” Lloyd said.
The project is tiny compared with other municipal proposals and did not rely on passage of the legislation. But the town is now hoping that net metering credits aren’t changed in a way that affects the town’s solar project.
“Hopefully they keep some form of net metering, because for a municipality, it is a real advantage,” Lloyd said.