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Officials want to go big on solar power

By Susan Mustapich | Jan 09, 2020

CAMDEN — Town Manager Audra Caler-Bell asked for direction from Select Board members Jan. 7 on the use of solar and alternative energy to offset all of the town government's annual 2 million kilowatt hours of electricity usage.

In 2019, an energy audit of Camden's municipal facilities showed use of  2.2 million kwh. Of that, 44 percent was consumed by the Snow Bowl. Snow-making used 522,457 kwh of electricity during the 2018-19 ski season and chairlifts used 398,537 kwh. The wastewater treatment plant and system is the largest municipal user, at over 860,000 kwh annually. The audit was conducted by Rich Roughgarden of Maine Solar Engineering.

On Jan. 7, Caler-Bell told the Select Board that with their direction, she can reach out to surrounding towns to assess possible interest in joining with Camden on this venture, as well as developing a request for proposals.

She listed environmental factors to be considered in making decisions. One is whether the solar or alternative energy is produced on marginal land, rather than land that has better uses, such as agriculture. Another factor is the extent that one option or another contributes to solar energy development in Maine and results in a greater proportion of renewable energy in the power grid.

Caler-Bell asked officials where they want to see solar power installations and about other types of energy they may want to use. Board members expressed interest in expanding local solar installations as well as joining with other towns to purchase energy from solar installations outside of the local area.

Board member Marc Ratner pushed for both a local solar installation and other options that would provide power not only to run town-owned facilities, but that would provide energy for town residents. He cited Greta Thunberg as a model for doing more than what has been done in the past.

"We need to be in the forefront," Ratner said.  "Not just being comfortable, but doing this ourselves and taking care of our citizens, and to inspire others to do that as well."

Board chairman Bob Falciani would like to hold a workshop with interested parties.

"We have to look at all the elements and make sure we have them on the table," he said. He said this would not delay preparation of a request for proposals, saying that could be done on a parallel track.

Solar and alternative energy options

In the local option, the town would set up solar panels on its buildings and land, and in the future own, operate and maintain that infrastructure, as well as oversee energy contracts, financial oversight and other details. Camden already has a small solar installation located at Sagamore Farm. With this model, the town contracted with Revision Energy, which sells energy credits to investors and Camden benefits through reduced electricity bills and by producing non-carbon based energy. Caler-Bell pointed out that the town has had mixed success with the installation based on problems with verifying and obtaining energy credits from Central Maine Power.

The upside of a town-owned solar installation is that after approximately 13 years the purchase is paid off and the energy produced is free for municipal use. The current value  of the Sagamore Farm solar installation is $272,000 per year, according to Caler-Bell. If the expected lifespan of solar panels is 25 years, the town can expect a savings of approximately $3,264,000 over a 12-year period.

Caler-Bell prepared information for the Board on local installation options and the amount of electricity that can be produced there. These sites are: the Public Safety building, Public Works facility, an expansion at Sagamore Farm and the tannery site. The estimated power generation from these sites is nearly 800,000 kwh per year, she wrote.

Another option is investing in large centralized solar installations, that may not be anywhere near Camden. An example of this is the Maine Power Options, an energy-purchasing consortium administered through the Maine Municipal Bond Bank, that works with Maine’s local governments, schools and non-profits. They are developing a solar program. Camden is already an MPO member, dating back to before Caler-Bell's tenure.

The MPO can offset all of Camden's municipal use, does not require ownership or administration by the town and offers power purchase at a fixed rate for 20 years, according to Caler-Bell.

Another option is the Maine Green Power Program administered by the Public Utilities Commission. Camden could buy renewable energy credits that the PUC has to guarantee come from facilities like wind, solar, and biomass.

Board member Alison McKellar picked up on information in a chart Caler-Bell provided showing solar, hydropower, wind, tidal, wood waste and bio mass energy producers. One biomass source is called "black liquor." Questions about what this is, and the information that it is a distillation left over from the paper production process, led to a discussion about whether energy produced using biomass, wood waste or trash incineration is beneficial to the environment.

The town's Energy and Sustainability Committee is very supportive of the town's intention to expand solar to offset all of Camden's municipal energy use, according to Chairperson Anita Brosius-Scott.

Former Energy Committee member Pete Kalajian urged town officials to develop local solar installations, where residents can see them. He wants town officials and residents to connect local energy use to facilities that produce energy, as a way to get everyone to think about how much energy they are using. He pointed out the disconnect between energy use and the pollution produced by energy plants, drilling and fracking, in places like Camden.

Board members support moving forward on a request for proposals to obtain energy offsets with solar installations. Members said an RFP can seek both local options and installations outside of the area and agreed to have at least one more meeting to decide on specifics.


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Comments (2)
Posted by: Mary A McKeever | Jan 10, 2020 13:13

Tidal power is a wonderful alternative and worth a try.

Posted by: Karen A Grove | Jan 10, 2020 09:42

Has anyone looked into tidal power.  There is a company here in Maine that does this work on a global level. Ocean Renewable Power Company. In November they received almost $4 million in a federal grant to advance their technology to harness power from rivers.  Perhaps they should be asked for input.

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