Ranger Solar in Yarmouth weighs a plan that could cost $25 million and take up 100 acres, but requires zoning regulation changes.
By Peter McGuire, Central Maine
Portland Press Herald news story
WINSLOW — The town is set to begin drafting regulations that could pave the way for a solar farm potentially 20 times bigger than the largest one in the state.
Ranger Solar, a private Yarmouth-based energy firm, is contemplating siting a 10- to 20-megawatt solar station somewhere on Heywood Road. The project is estimated to cost as much as $25 million and take up as much as 100 acres.
Winslow would be the first municipality in the state to create a utility-scale solar ordinance that would create standards for such projects, according to town officials. And the ordinance has to be in place by mid-October so Ranger can take advantage of federal solar-investment tax credits.
In an interview Monday, Aaron Svedlow, Ranger’s director of environmental planning, said that the project is still in the early stages.
“At this point, we are really just evaluating the feasibility of the project in Winslow,” he said.
The envisioned project is between 10 and 20 times bigger than the largest solar farm in the state, at Bowdoin College in Brunswick. That installation, with 4,500 solar panels, generates 1.2 megawatts, roughly 8 percent of the college’s energy. It was completed in October.
Depending on how the Winslow project shapes up, Ranger is looking at 5 to 7 acres of land per megawatt, which translates to a development between 50 and 100 acres.
“That is what is required to make a solar project (work) economically without any grants or subsidies,” Svedlow said. He wouldn’t say where on Heywood Road the project would go because a deal with the landowner hasn’t been finalized.
The plan is to connect the solar farm to the electricity grid and sell it commercially.
Svedlow also would not say where the electricity would be sold, saying that it is proprietary information.
According to the Solar Industries Association, the national average number of homes that can be powered by one megawatt of photovoltaic energy power is 164, although that number varies from state to state.
The company wants to take advantage of federal solar-investment tax credits before the end of the year. The program provides a 30 percent federal income tax credit for commercial or residential solar systems, which will be lowered to 10 percent after 2016.
But to even consider the proposal, the town must adopt an ordinance that would set standards for such solar projects. The town’s zoning ordinance includes permitted and conditional land uses for each zone, such as residential, rural, industrial or mixed, but it does not include any provisions for large-scale commercial solar projects.
Heywood Road is split evenly between a mixed-use zone to the west, where Johnny’s Seeds is located, and a rural zone to the east.
A committee made up of planning board members and town councilors will meet for the first time at 4 p.m. July 28 to begin discussing the ordinance. Chris Huck, a planning director for the Kennebec Valley Council of Governments, will assist the panel.
Since they could find no other towns or cities in Maine with a solar utility ordinance, the committee is using ordinances from Connecticut, Massachusetts, North Carolina and elsewhere as examples, Huck said.
Occasionally, the town amends or updates its zoning ordinance to reflect a new business or industry that the town didn’t expect when the ordinance was originally adopted, said Town Manager Michael Heavener.
The committee will determine standards, then decide what zones will be appropriate for large-scale commercial solar. The committee’s recommendations will be considered by the Town Council.
To meet its deadline, Ranger wants the ordinance in place by mid-October.
“That way when they move forward with permitting they have some assurance they can actually do the project at the site,” Heavener said.
Town Councilor Ken Fletcher said Monday he didn’t think the ordinance will be too difficult to draft and he expects the committee could finish its work in time.
“It’s not the same as a large-scale manufacturing project,” Fletcher said. “Really, from the standpoint of the technology, it’s pretty straightforward.”
If the Winslow project goes through, it won’t likely be the last large-scale commercial solar proposal in the state. “Maine has really lagged behind the nation and the U.S.” in pursuing solar energy, Svedlow said.
According to its website, Ranger Solar was founded by a group of veteran renewable-energy developers looking to bring private investment in solar projects to the New England region. The company was started about six months ago.
If conditions are favorable, the firm believes that solar presents a real opportunity in Maine, especially compared with wind power, which has more of a visual and environmental impact and has been unpopular with some in the state.
“Everything is really pointing to solar being a good fit for Maine,” Svedlow said.