by Andy O’Brien
Free Press news story
The City of Belfast rang in the New Year last week by hooking up the city to 396 newly installed photovoltaic solar panels on the site of the former dump, off of Pitcher Road.
The new 122 kilowatt solar array on the old capped landfill along with the 45.9 kW solar-electric array installed on the fire station last year are expected to provide nearly 20 percent of the electricity load for the city’s 11 municipal buildings. Last year, the fire station array provided about $6,000 worth of electricity to the city, while the new landfill system is expected to generate an additional $21,000 a year and pay for itself within 15 years.
City Councilor Mike Hurley said the project makes sense fiscally for the town because in 2013 it spent nearly 10 percent of the city’s annual budget, on electricity, oil and gas. And because the potential for development on the landfill is limited, it made perfect sense to situate the PV panels there.
“What really drove it for me was money,” said Hurley. “I look at energy costs as a total waste of money going up the chimneys or going to electric companies.”
There were no up-front costs to the city for the project because it was funded through a power purchase agreement (PPA) with the solar installer ReVision Energy. Under the PPA, the city will pay ReVision for the electricity produced by the solar array at a discounted rate.
According to ReVision system designer Hans Albee, PPAs are necessary for public solar projects because the only solar incentives available in Maine are tax-based, such as the 30-percent federal tax credit. The PPA allows public entities and nonprofits to get the same advantages as tax-liable individuals or businesses. After all of the tax-related benefits run out in six years, Belfast can then opt to purchase the system at a discount.
“The wear factor on the solar panels is like 40 years,” said Belfast City Councilor Eric Sanders. “These babies are big and thick and good. After six years, we can take it over and buy it outright and reap benefits for the next 30 years.”
Seeking Support from the State for Municipal Solar
While Belfast is the first town in Maine to host a solar array on its landfill, other towns around the state are considering the option.
For the past four years, Rockland City Councilor Larry Pritchett, who is also chair of the Rockland Energy Committee, has been working with the towns of South Portland and Falmouth as part of the Municipal Street Lighting Group to explore municipal solar investment. In comments to the Maine Public Utilities Commission (MPUC) in November, Pritchett wrote that there are 15 capped landfills in Waldo County, 12 capped landfills in Knox County and 14 capped landfills in Lincoln County, which he estimated could generate 3.1 megawatts (MW), 3.5 MW and 3.6 MW of solar electricity respectively if just 40 percent of the land hosted PV arrays.
“Developing these properties for solar PV designed to offset municipal loads has the potential to stabilize or lower costs for municipal taxpayers,” wrote Pritchett. “Developing these properties for community solar could offer a local power alternative to residents and small businesses.”
However, Pritchett noted that current utility laws that limit solar projects to just 660 MW and prohibit more than nine businesses and homeowners from partnering on large-scale community solar farms makes it difficult for municipalities to invest in the technology. Currently, the PUC is holding stakeholder hearings with the goal of developing alternative solar incentive policies.
The current state’s net energy billing system allows PV users to accrue energy credits for the power they generate when the sun is out and exchange them for free grid power when the sun isn’t shining. Maine’s utility companies have successfully blocked all attempts to pay solar producers more favorable rates, despite a 2015 PUC finding that locally distributed solar is worth 20 cents more per kilowatt-hour than the net energy credits producers receive.
However, Pritchett said it’s “highly likely” that the PUC will come up with a proposal during this coming legislative session.
Last month, MPUC also approved terms of a 20-year contract to develop solar farms with the capacity to generate up to 75 megawatts of electricity. The decision came after the Legislature passed a community-based renewables pilot program that allows projects to qualify as long as their electric prices are below 10 cents per kilowatt hour. One of the approved projects is a 9.9 megawatt utility-scale solar project in Monroe developed by Montville-based Clear Energy LLC and Cianbro Development Corp. The PUC decision directs CMP to negotiate terms with the two companies at a rate of 8.45 cents per kilowatt hour.
Although Maine is lagging behind the rest of New England in solar installations, renewable energy advocates got some good news from Washington last month when Congress finally agreed to extend the 30-percent solar tax credit. The new credit will remain at 30 percent until 2019, when it will gradually ratchet down to 22 percent by 2022.
And the market has rapidly improved for solar with the cost of PV panels dropping by 50 percent in the past five years, according to a recent report by the the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. As a result, ReVision Energy says it was able to install a record 5,200 kW of solar in 2015 — nearly doubling what the company installed in 2014.
Still, Councilor Mike Hurley says Maine is seriously lagging behind and not doing enough to speed up investment in solar power.
“The really sad thing is that this state could really be taking off like almost every other state in the United States if it wasn’t for Governor LePage and the idiots in Augusta who have made it really hard to fund these things because they don’t believe in it,” he said. “But every other state — including incredibly liberal states like Texas, Oklahoma, Montana and Utah — are leading the country on solar and wind because they didn’t buy the baloney and they didn’t sacrifice lowering energy costs on some altar of phony politics.”