Projects are going up all over, aiming to harness electricity and, in the process, create local jobs.
by Colin Ellis, Morning Sentinel
Central Maine newspapers news story
In early December, when light was dwindling in the late afternoon and wintry weather was taking hold, space heaters were coming out of storage and household lights were being turned on earlier. But at a stove shop in Augusta, an increasingly popular trend in energy was on display.
At Rocky’s Stove Shoppe off Route 3, ReVision Energy – a full-service, renewable energy contracting company with offices in Portland and Liberty and other New England states – was installing a solar array to meet the energy needs of the company.
Eighty-three photovoltaic panels that can produce 25 kilowatts of electric energy were being installed on the roof of a storage facility, project manager Arthur Nerzig said. The energy that the company does not use will be sold to the power grid that serves the state, returning to the company a credit. The stove shop’s system will produce 33,500 kilowatt-hours per year, Nerzig said.
Rocky’s is the first stove shop in Maine to convert to solar energy, Holly Noyes, public relations manager at ReVision, said, but the company works with a lot of businesses to become more energy-efficient, and the arrays can meet all or the majority of the businesses’ needs. Studies have indicated they have a lifetime close to 40 years.
“We see a lot of business projects in this range,” she said.
ReVision has built arrays similar to the one at Rocky’s Stove Shoppe at nearby farms and businesses, Noyes said, including Full Circle Farm in Vassalboro, Two Loons Farm in Vassalboro, The Apple Farm of Fairfield, Stoney End Farm in Rome, Cheney Insurance in Damariscotta, and Mexicali Blues in Newcastle.
ReVision built the 102-kilowatt array at the Common Ground Education Center on Crosby Brook Road for the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. MOFGA’s 300-panel array isn’t as large as many commercial or municipal projects that involve thousands of panels, but it does dwarf most residential efforts.
Financial incentives have helped fuel solar development big and small. Photovoltaic systems that homeowners use off the electric grid can provide predictable energy costs. Those connected to the grid can allow the homeowner to receive a credit on his or her electric bill when the power produced exceeds the power consumed during a 12-month period.
CREDITS UP, COSTS DOWN
Under the current rules for net metering – the billing mechanism that credits solar system owners for the electricity they put into the grid – every kilowatt-hour exported to the grid earns a credit of equal value. Under new rules proposed by the Maine Public Utilities Commission, those values were set to decrease, first to a 90 percent credit, then to an 80 percent credit, and so on.
Homeowners who had already installed solar panels were to be compensated for the power they produce at a full retail rate for 15 years, but those who install solar panels after the start of 2018 were to see the credit reduced over time. However, the PUC extended the start time for the new rules to April 2018.
Rocky Gaslin, who is now in his 38th year in business, said one of the reasons he was switching to solar energy was to take advantage of tax credits. He also wanted to make sure his company stays competitive going forward, and reducing electricity costs by way of his solar installation will help, he said.
“It makes me feel good to go green,” he said.
That’s a feeling Steve Kahl, an associate professor of science at Thomas College in Waterville, would second.
Kahl, chairman of the Sustain Mid Maine Coalition energy team and the former director of energy and environmental strategies for the James W. Sewall Co. in Old Town, said all over the world, countries are moving toward renewable energy. Car manufacturers such as Volvo and Hyundai are committed to electric cars, he said, and the United States needs to think more globally and embrace renewable energy.
The Sustain Mid Maine Coalition, a nonprofit organization sponsored by the city of Waterville, the Kennebec Valley Council of Governments, Inland Hospital and a host of other organizations, promotes energy conservation and the use of alternative energies, among other pursuits.
Kahl said the PUC’s proposal to decrease the credit for net metering could create uncertainty for the solar industry, as a person interested in solar energy may not feel it’s a worthwhile investment. However, even if the credit does decrease, he said, it would still be a good deal, one that is being recognized in a number of places. He said cities all over are trying to become 100 percent renewable, and cites Georgetown, Texas, as one that has become 100 percent renewable.
“It’s an economic and competitive argument,” he said, and not a partisan one.
Kahl worries that if other Northeast states continue to embrace solar and renewable energy at a faster rate than Maine, the state could be “left out in the cold.”
“Given that we’re at the end of the line and have economic disadvantage because of location, we need to be first to embrace renewable energy,” he said. “We need to convince our leaders that we’ve just got to get on board. We can’t sit around and twiddle our thumbs.”
Kahl sees Colby College’s solar array and the solar projects proposed for the capped landfills in Waterville and Fairfield as big deals for central Maine and cited the closed landfill in South Portland, which just flipped the switch on its solar array, as proof these projects can work.
“That supports what’s going on on Webb Road,” he said. “It’s an example of using space that doesn’t have practical application and that makes a lot of sense.”
For Garvan Donegan, an economic development specialist for the Central Maine Growth Council, a public-private collaborative group based in Waterville, “it’s an extraordinarily exciting time.”
Donegan said 2017 was a “great year” for solar projects in the region. The scale and scope of the projects have been “economic multipliers” that have and will lead to job creation.
A number of large arrays came on line in the central Maine region this year while others are in the planning stage.
Madison Electric Works’ 26,000-panel array became fully operational in 2017. The 5-megawatt installation spanning 22 acres in the Madison Business Gateway generates enough electricity to satisfy the needs of 20 percent of its customers. On a sunny day the array will meet the needs of 100 percent of the utility’s customers – about 3,000 homes and small businesses. Ohio-based IGS Solar built the array, and Madison Electric Works purchases all the energy it produces.
This past year Colby College in Waterville, in collaboration with NRG Energy Inc., a solar energy company based in New Jersey and Texas, built a 5,300-panel array that generates 16 percent of the college’s energy needs, according to communications director Kate Carlisle. The array occupies 9 acres of college-owned land along Washington Street that Colby’s trustees agreed to lease to NRG for 27 years. Colby purchases 100 percent of the power produced by the array.
The state’s largest array, Cianbro’s 41,000-panel project in Pittsfield, was expected to go on line at the end of 2017. Environmental regulators approved the $24.2 million project in June, and the PUC allowed Cianbro to enter into a long-term partnership with Central Maine Power Co. Cianbro’s 57-acre solar farm off U.S. Route 2 is expected to generate 9.9 megawatts of power. CMP will pay 8.45 cents per kilowatt-hour for that electricity over a 20-year contract.
MASSIVE PROJECTS PLANNED
Fairfield and Clinton have both been eyed for two massive projects.
NextEra Energy Resources, a Florida-based company that is one of the largest generators of solar energy in the country, is planning a $30 million, 20-megawatt project in Fairfield on an active farm off Route 201. The array will provide enough energy to power about 7,000 homes.
The Clinton project, another $30 million, 20-megawatt array, will occupy private property between Holt Road and Channing Place near the Sebasticook River, sharing space with a cellphone tower on land with little agricultural value. It will be slightly more visible to residents than the one in Fairfield.
The projects will each require tens of thousands of panels once completed. They are targeted to be operational at the end of 2019 and are expected to sell their energy to Connecticut.
As with Fairfield, the Clinton project is expected to create about 85 construction jobs, and once operational, four full-time jobs at the site.
NextEra has been working on other potential projects during this past calendar year, including one in Moscow just north of Bingham. The Moscow facility, which was endorsed by the town’s Board of Selectmen in a letter to Massachusetts Clean Energy officials earlier this year, will sell its energy to the Bay State.
The company is also proposing an $80 million, 75-megawatt solar facility in Farmington. Like the other proposed projects, the Farmington array would sell its energy to other New England states. NextEra generally has proposed its projects in areas deemed not highly visible to the public.
Waterville and Fairfield have entered into a partnership with the Falmouth-based company Gizos Energy LLC to explore their capped landfills as sites for solar projects.
The 5-megawatt Fairfield project, which may sell its energy to local consumers, Gizos estimates will cost up to $7 million. It is expected to occupy a 25-acre parcel, create 35 to 45 local jobs, and provide enough power for 750 homes.
In Waterville, Gizos is working on a 20-megawatt project at the capped landfill on Webb Road. The company is also proposing a 5-megawatt facility elsewhere on Webb Road. The Waterville City Council approved a partnership with Gizos last summer. The project is estimated to cost close to $30 million and provide enough power for 3,750 homes, but the power likely will be sold out of state.
Gizos is the exclusive U.S. development partner for Germany-based hep energy GmbH, a solar investment and engineering firm.
Each of these projects comes with the promise of at least temporary jobs being created in the region.
According to data from the Solar Foundation, which conducted a solar job census for 2016, the bulk of Maine’s solar jobs were located in Cumberland County. All told, there were 572 solar jobs in 2016, ranging from installation to manufacturing, sales and others. This included 242 new jobs since 2015, a 73 percent growth rate.
However, the number of jobs dipped considerably in more northern areas. For example, Somerset County reportedly had just eight jobs listed for 2016, and Franklin County reported just seven. Kennebec County fared comparatively better with 37 jobs.
The Solar Foundation, based in Washington, D.C., ranked Maine 40th in the country for solar jobs and 27th in solar jobs per capita.