2014-11-14 / Front Page

Light dims on city’s solar farm

By Duke Harrington
Contributing Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — The sun may have set on dreams of building a solar farm array in South Portland.

At its most recent workshop session, the city council received a 46-page report from ReVision Energy — the company behind the February 2013 installation of solar panels atop the city’s planning and development office — on the feasibility of building a solar “farm” array atop the old landfill off Highland Avenue.

The bottom line of the report, which cost the city $12,500, was that the city will likely have trouble pulling the project off, either on its own or with investors, due to a lack of financial incentives from the state.

“You’ll have a difficult time getting a commercial tax investor to make you an offer you wouldn’t choke on without some additional help,” said ReVision’s Director of Finance Steve Hinchman.

That seemed to put a damper on the prospect, initially envisioned as an array of between 1,500 and 1,600 photovoltaic panels, each measuring 3 feet wide by 5 feet long. Those panels, covering about 2 acres of the capped landfill, would produce 660 kilowatts of power, enough to offset about 40 percent of the city’s energy use. But the three phases of construction could cost about $2.1 million, excluding legal fees and landfill engineering, Hinchman said.

“It is a mixed bag tonight,” said Councilor Patti Smith. “There’s a lot of excitement, a lot of joy, but it’s also a reality check.”

“I still really want us to move forward,” said Councilor Tom Blake. “This is exciting stuff.”

Councilors have discussed a “community farm” design that would allow residents to buy into the project. It also could apply to the Public Utilities Commission for a waiver of the state’s net metering cap, which limits how much energy can be sold back to the electrical grid.

However, the council appeared wary of getting a PUC waiver, given recent events. According to City Manager Jim Gailey, the ReVision report was completed in April, but it was held to see how the PUC might resolve a large Central Maine Power rate case, which could throw the report’s costbenefit analysis out of whack.

The council agreed to spend a little extra to make sure the new public works complex to be built on Highland Avenue is compatible with the solar array, if and when it is built. Planning Director Tex Haeuser, who first proposed the solar farm several years ago, said doing so makes more sense to equip the building to feed of the solar farm then to to upgrade it later.

Haeuser urged the council to finance engineering and permitting to begin stage 1 of the project, which Gailey said would cost about $60,000.

“Creating a solar PV array on the city’s landfill would help South Portland meet its objectives for reducing the use of fossil fuels and limiting the release of greenhouse gas emissions,” Haeuser said. “It would make a significant statement about the city’s commitment to provide leadership in transitioning to a renewable energy future.”

The council, however, appeared to largely prefer a wait-and-see approach, to see if rate structures and solar project incentives materialize during the next legislative session.

Meanwhile, Hinchman told the council that his firm can re-evaluate its numbers whenever the council takes a formal vote to move forward.

“This is not a static study that you stick on the shelf,” he said.

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