A proposal to create a town solar array that would power four of the town's buildings has generated debate at selectmen's meetings and prompted a special town meeting for Tuesday, March 26.

The meeting will start 6:30 p.m. at Hope Elementary School.

The warrant for the meeting was released Monday, March 18, and has two items related to the solar proposal. Residents will be asked to authorize selectmen to spend up to $10,000 from the undesignated fund to conduct an energy audit of the Town Office, Hope Corner Fire Station and South Hope Fire Station, including an engineering analysis for potential installation of heat pumps in those buildings.

Residents will also be asked to authorize selectmen in their discretion after consideration of the energy audit and financial analysis and recommendations from the town Solar Committee to "incur the additional legal and expert expense to negotiate a potential power purchase agreement with a solar power contractor."

Selectman Dick Crabtree acknowledged Tuesday that even if the question is approved by voters, the selectmen will have the power to vote the solar proposal down if the energy audit and engineering analysis invalidate the assumptions made by the solar committee.

If the selectmen find that the proposal is worth pursuing, they will send it back to the townspeople at another town meeting to approve the negotiated power contract and accept the private donation made to the town for the project.

The town's Ad-hoc Solar Committee has also issued a press release on the meeting.

"A renewed effort was mounted, due in part to the insistence of the children of Chris and Lindsay Pinchbeck; the kids urged action for their futures," the release states.

Selectmen formed the ad-hoc committee and tasked it with listing alternatives, drawing up a request for proposals, and obtaining bids. Chris Pinchbeck served as chairman, helped by Rick Bresnahan, David Hall, Thomas Ingraham, Bill Jones, Ron Smith and Langley Willauer. Tim Lock, an architect at GO Logic, served as a consultant.

"After bids were returned, extensive assessment and financial analysis revealed that the best option would be to build a solar array able to meet the electrical needs of four town buildings and partially heat them with heat pumps," the release states.

The buildings would be the Town Office/library, Hope Corner Fire Station, South Hope Fire Station and the sand/salt shed. The group's proposed plan would involve building the array on the unused field of True Park, which is town-owned.

"On Tuesday, March 26, voters are expected to be asked to approve a two-step process. First, an energy audit of certain buildings combined with refining the heating portion of the project, and, second, to move ahead with the solar array and heat pumps," the press release states.

"If Hope sets aside $12,000 per year for six years, we’re able to pay for the entire system," the group said in a separate information sheet. "All of the power generated benefits the town for the entire time the town owns the system. Tax implications will be roughly $6 per $100,000 for six years, after which the system is paid off in full."

The group maintains that over 40 years, the solar array would allow the town a $100,500 benefit.

The release adds: "Having a solar array stabilizes energy costs to create a known value for town budgeting. The solar array would act to offset Hope’s carbon footprint by roughly 60,000 pounds per year."

"If we do nothing and simply continue, as is, to pay our electric and heat bills over 40 years, we stand to lose an estimated $368,500," the release states.

Selectmen initially resisted the idea of a special town meeting.

On March 6, Selectman Dick Crabtree said selectmen should reject the proposals from Revision Energy and Sundog Solar, arguing neither met the financial return for the town, according to minutes from the selectmen's meeting.

"He also thinks that the selectmen should reject the recommendation of the Solar Committee to go with Revision Energy, as it also doesn’t meet the threshold for the internal rate of return and cash-flow," the meeting minutes state. "Furthermore, he stated that the selectmen should disband the Solar Committee as an agent of the town, as they have fulfilled their charge. Lastly, he thinks the selectmen should place an article on the Town Warrant for the Annual Meeting for the voters to approve or disapprove. There was much discussion that ensued following Dick’s opening remarks from those in attendance as well as the selectmen. Sarah (Ann Smith) made a motion to have a Special Town Meeting in March to vote on the Solar Project and the Fire Truck. During the discussion, Mike Brown seconded the motion with an amended motion that both fire trucks and the solar project be funded from the undesignated fund at that Special Town Meeting."

The motion failed 2-3 with Brian Powers, Crabtree and Wendy Pelletier opposed.

"We returned to the board on the next meeting with news that over $41,000 had been pledged from private sources to help ease the financial burden to the taxpayer," Chris Pinchbeck said. "It presents a significant difference for both the short- and long-term financial outcome for the project. The board made a motion to move this to a Special Town vote with the provision the town conducts an energy audit to ensure we’re maximizing a most efficient path forward."

Crabtree said the selectmen originally wanted to deal with the question at the annual town meeting in June, but there was time pressure because of the deadlines for applying for federal subsidies. He also noted the private donation.

He said it is about the will of the townspeople, not the will of the selectmen. Townspeople may make the decision on a purely financial basis, or they may also do this based on environmental concerns, he said.

"This project is largely symbolic in dealing with greenhouse gases," he said.

A special selectmen's meeting was held Monday, March 18, at the Town Office to discuss the special town meeting next week.

It was noted in the meeting minutes from March 6 that two of the town's fire trucks have rust problems and need repairs. There was some debate among selectmen at that meeting whether to deal with the issue with a special town meeting or not.

At the special town meeting, residents will decide whether to authorize up to $30,000 from the undesignated fund for emergency repairs to two town fire trucks.