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Maine's solar power output has surged in two years. 'Community solar' projects play a big part

 ReVision Energy’s Derek Turnbull, left, and Nick Sampson at a new “community solar” farm in Acton.
ReVision Energy’s Derek Turnbull, left, and Nick Sampson at a new “community solar” farm in Acton.

A mid-sized project in York County that's part of the state's new "community solar" program is just about to go live.

It's happening as the state's capacity for generating low-polluting electricity from the sun has surged in the last two years by more than 300% — and that's expected to grow as the state moves closer to its clean energy goals.

This story is part of our series "Climate Driven: A deep dive into Maine's response, one county at a time."

That's largely due to a slate of reforms Gov. Janet Mills, supportive lawmakers and solar advocates helped to enact in 2019, which ended years of anemic growth under the administration of former Governor Paul LePage, who was hostile to renewable energy development.

The new agenda has had its setbacks, and there is an ongoing debate over whether costs are being allocated fairly, which is one of LePage's chief critiques. But it's undeniably opened up a lot of opportunities for new solar initiatives.

In the rural town of Acton, in the state's southwestern corner, a fleet of solar panels sprouted this summer from an old hillside farm field. Derek Turnbull is site-manager for ReVision Energy, which is doing the installation.

"It was land purchased by a neighbor here, and it was just a pasture really," Turnbull said. "He was going to develop it with housing and stuff but he decided to go with solar instead right now, and it's a great site."

He said it's taken about a year to plan, construct and do the electrical work for the 17 acres worth of solar panels.

"It is a great site in that we're not cutting any trees to install it. This site has roughly 12,000 modules," Turnbull said. "We have a couple dozen inverters — two totally new services, so we got two new transformers, two new switchboards, all going into a new tie-in with Central Maine Power."

The project's capacity is a little over four megawatts. ReVision's development manager for the project, Nick Sampson, said depending on how much the sun shines any given year, it should produce 5.2 million kilowatt hours of electricity.

"You're close to 800-850 households basically," he said.

The appearance of projects like this has been sparked by a slate of changes in state law pushed by the Mills administration in 2019, in a studied effort to undo the LePage legacy.

That included an expansion in the size of solar operations that are allowed to earn credits for supplying power to the grid, under the policy known as "net metering," or "net energy billing." Previously limited to about two-thirds of a megawatt, net metering projects could now be as large as five megawatts (although that was later scaled back out of concerns the program was growing too fast).

The new law also eliminated a nine-person cap of the number of customers who could sign on to any given solar farm. It's called the "community solar" program and as of last month the state reports that 31of these mid-sized projects have gone live in Maine.

"(Customers) can sign up for a portion of the credits from one of these systems at no upfront cost for 20 years and have a stable supply of clean local electricity that is providing an immediate savings to that customer," said Nick Sampson, Revision's project development coordinator.

And Jonathan Cole, head of development at a New Jersey-based energy company with a big national portfolio of solar projects, called Soltage, calls the new law a remarkable jump start. Soltage is making the up-front investments and will be the project owner.

Cole isn't saying exactly what this project's cost will be, but using a $2 million per megawatt industry rule-of-thumb, it could run about $8 million. Cole says the company found a pool of customers willing to sign on to 20 years contracts, which combined with federal tax credits and credits for renewable energy production will provide a solid return.

"You can structure your deals with a variety of types of businesses or you can do programs with residential subscribers, so the program is really flexible and really robust," he said. "So that's attractive to us."

And to dozens and dozens of other companies that have stampeded into Maine to prospect for customers.

The Acton project has signed on a number of municipal entities, including the Freeport public schools, the town of Yarmouth, and the Brunswick sewer district, where Rob Pontau manages the town's electricity-chugging wastewater treatment plant.

"We're looking at saving approximately $10,000 a year, maybe 15 depending on how it works," Pontau said. "So I think it's going to reduce our electricity cost anywhere from 6 to 8%, something like that."

State figures show that after years of relatively anemic growth in solar installations, capacity shot up by 75 megawatts last year and another 165 added so far this year. That brings the total to 325 megawatts of capacity — with hundreds more possible next year.

Some of that comes from a resurgence of individual residential rooftop projects and a good deal more from the construction of much larger, commercial-scale solar farms. Many stakeholders expected the community solar programs to ramp up faster than they did, but that was stalled by some growing pains.

"I signed up to be a subscriber for a particular project that was supposed to be energized this last spring, and I just got an email from the developer that it's going to be maybe the spring of 2022," said Jeremy Payne. He's not just a frustrated community solar customer: he's also executive director of a trade group called the Maine Renewable Energy Association.

Payne says the cause of the delays is that planners at the state's largest utilities and the regional grid operator, ISO New England, have been slow to accurately assess upgrades that will be needed to make sure the grid can safely handle the new power sources.

"If we're tripping over our shoelaces in the early days, this is just going to get worse over time," he said. "So we really wan to work with them to improve their process. So this really should be a collaborative approach to fixing this and getting it done better, quicker."

State regulators are investigating whether the utilities botched their response to the new programs, and they've embarked on a wider effort to examine grid issues in the coming era of more localized renewable energy sources — known as "distributed generation."

Central Maine Power CEO Joseph Purington said the company is making a good-faith effort to meet an unprecedented onslaught of new demand — with the number of solar projects bigger than one megawatt seeking to interconnect with CMP's systems rising from just six in 2018, to more than 600 today.

"No other utility in any other state is facing such a huge number of requests to add new solar projects for this size of grid," Purington said. "I would liken it to connecting the equivalent of two Maine Yankee plants to the power grid, but connecting them at 500 different places in the state." 

There are other concerns that coincide with the rapid growth of net metering in Maine, most prominently whether it may throw too many costs onto other grid users. Developers argue that they are making important infrastructure investments needed to help the grid into the age of renewables.

And Governor Mills' energy director Dan Burgess said they're a vital part of staying on track to meet the states carbon-dioxide reduction targets for 2030.

Back at the Acton plant, site manager Derek Turnbull says he doesn't expect the road ahead to be easy, but he's looking forward to making the journey one step at a time.

"It's been a fun process for sure, an I'm looking forward to many more," he said. "The difficult part of building solar, it's getting to the point where you can break ground, and it's getting to the point where you can so-called, flip the switch."

In Acton, the switch is scheduled to be flipped the first week of December, adding an incremental but significant dose of low-polluting electricity to Maine's energy portfolio.

Copyright 2021 Maine Public. To see more, visit Maine Public.

A Columbia University graduate, Fred began his journalism career as a print reporter in Vermont, then came to Maine Public in 2001 as its political reporter, as well as serving as a host for a variety of Maine Public Radio and Maine Public Television programs. Fred later went on to become news director for New England Public Radio in Western Massachusetts and worked as a freelancer for National Public Radio and a number of regional public radio stations, including WBUR in Boston and NHPR in New Hampshire.
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