Forum explores renewable energy for Waldoboro

By Beth A. Birmingham | Apr 11, 2017
Photo by: Beth A. Birmingham Seth Hall, left, Chairman of Waldoboro's Renewable Energy Group, and Sadie Lloyd, Assistant Planner for Belfast, during a forum on solar prospects April 4.

Waldoboro — The Waldoboro Renewable Energy Group hosted a forum April 4 on the potential for solar energy to power town buildings, residences and commercial enterprises.

Featured presenters were Belfast Assistant City Planner Sadie Lloyd and Tim Schneider of the Public Utilities Commission. Both shared their perspectives on municipal initiatives, opportunities and challenges to installing solar systems in Midcoast Maine.

In 2015, Belfast installed 180 solar panels on the roof of the fire station, and it added close to 400 more at a capped landfill on Pitcher Road last year. It was the first such installation in the state.

Lloyd said Belfast's arrays generate about 20 percent of the city's municipal electricity.

"That percent might seem real small, but it's real money," she said. Belfast generates $30,000 in electricity per year.

Belfast signed a Power Purchase Agreement or PPA with ReVision Energy on its project.

The PPA generally gives ReVision Energy the responsibility for the cost, construction and operation of the solar array, while the town agrees to purchase the energy produced from ReVision, at a lower cost than what is currently paid to Central Maine Power.

The agreement offers the city the option to continue buying the electricity from ReVision, or the option to buy the solar array in the seventh year of operation, at which point Belfast would own the energy produced.

Lloyd explained for the first six years there is no cost to the town. She said the costs are all calculated in the 13-year payback.

"That may seem like a lot, but the lifespan of the solar array is a minimum of 40 years," Lloyd said, adding, that is nearly 25 years the town and taxpayers are not subject to the volatility of other energy resources.

The city pays between 6 and 8.5 cents per kilowatt hour for electricity from Central Maine Power and renewable energy provider Constellation. The rate for electricity produced by ReVision Energy's solar arrays starts at 13.6 cents per kilowatt hour and increases 2.25 percent per year through the six-year term.

"We are not raising taxes and are investing in energy projects that are reducing the budget," she said.

"Net metering is what makes it possible for municipalities to take advantage of solar power," she explained. Without it, there would need to be a separate solar system for every meter -- which would be vastly more expensive.

ReVision has completed a number of similar projects in Maine and New Hampshire. All of them bank on net metering, which allows solar and other renewable energy producers to sell excess electricity back into the grid.

The current Public Utility Commission's net metering allows for 15 meters per system. With a new PUC standard on the horizon, new systems need to be installed prior to Jan. 1, 2018, according to Lloyd.

"Every town should be looking at this as an option," Lloyd said.

Schneider represents utility customers and his office is separate from the Governor's office.

"We managed to do something," Schneider said, explaining a group of consumer and solar advocates collaborated on a potential policy that was fair, accessible to all and did not increase the cost of energy.

Schneider said unfortunately the effort was opposed by the Governor and large industrial customers, and large national solar installers who felt net metering would influence those places where they make money.

"It is always disappointing to me when policy is dictated by powerful interests from outside the state," he said, "It will significantly change policy in January 2018."

Despite the changes, Schneider feels it is still wise to invest in solar. He also said a significant change will be the installation of a separate utility grade meter at the array and home to monitor consumption, and the complexities involved in billing.

Schneider said his office is not a fan of net metering. "When we look at it there are kind of two problems," he said. The first, being the math -- prices of solar are dropping and retail rates are rising. "We are paying more and more for what should be costing less and less," he said.

The second issue in net metering is it is not accessible to everyone. He explained if you want to have rooftop solar, you have to have a roof that you own and one that is not in the shade. And, he said, you have to have tax liability to be able to take advantage of the tax credits that are the primary incentive for supporting solar development.

"And that excludes probably about half of Mainers," Schneider said, adding, "Maine is a poor state, we don't have a ton of tax liability."

Schneider feels if there is going to be an effective solar policy, it needs to be accessible to everybody. He also said towns need to be mindful of tourism and what the landscape should look like.

"While net metering is certainly not a perfect solution, it has the advantages of being very simple to understand and manage for both ratepayers and utilities, and it helps to promote distributed solar electrical power generation as an alternative to relying so heavily on expensive and polluting fossil fuels," Renewable Energy Group Chairman Seth Hall explained.

He added with the solar industry booming in neighboring states and across the country, there is great concern among solar energy advocates that in Maine we are missing a great opportunity not only to create a system of reliable, sustainable, and cheaper electricity than is now available, but that we are missing the chance to create many good, high-paying solar jobs too.

"In addition, small businesses, municipalities, and potential community solar farm members are all in a state of flux and anxiety, due to the uncertainty created by the lack of a coherent solar policy at the state level," Hall said.

Selectman and small business owner Robert Butler said he was disappointed that there was no real discussion on Central Maine Power's responsibility to become a major investor in alternatives.

"CMP is the elephant in the room," he said.

Butler said he hopes this is only the first of many opportunities to discuss wind and solar and other alternatives to carbon fuels as well as the role of CMP.

"I think everyone felt it was a great success," Hall said.

The Waldoboro Renewable Energy Subcommittee will continue to investigate the possibility and potential benefits of a municipal solar power installation on the roof of the town office, to reduce energy costs, and help control the municipal budget, according to Hall.

"Working with a number of local solar installation providers, we hope to negotiate a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) that will meet our energy needs and save the town some money at the same time," Hall said.

Facts from a solar jobs census:

-- In 2016, solar jobs increased by 25 percent over 2015, with 260,077 solar workers.

-- 1 in 50 new jobs in the United States were in the solar industry.

-- The median wage for a solar installer is $26 per hour.

-- Solar employment is increasingly diverse with 28 percent being women, 17 percent being Latino or Hispanic, and 7 percent African American.

-- 67 percent of solar jobs do not require a bachelor's degree.

-- Solar jobs are in all 50 states.

Courier Publications reporter Beth A. Birmingham can be reached at 594-4401 ext. 125 or via email at bbirmingham@villagesoup.com.

Panelists Sadie Lloyd, Assistant Planner of Belfast, and Tim Schneider, Office of the Public Advocate with the Public Utilities Commission, present their views on solar power at a forum in Waldoboro April 4. (Photo by: Beth A. Birmingham)
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