2016-03-18 / Front Page

SoPo solar future looks bright

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — While it won’t be the first such project in the state, a solar power array built atop the old city landfill off Highland Avenue in South Portland promises to be the largest.

On Monday, city councilors gave the go-ahead to an idea several years in the making, which could generate up to 1.2 million kilowatt hours of electricity per year. According to South Portland Sustainability Coordinator Julie Rosenbach, that would cover about 12 percent of all energy consumption by both the city and the school department.

Following Monday’s council workshop, the proposal will likely land on a regular council agenda in April or early May, said City Manager Jim Gailey.

Building a solar array atop a landfill was new territory when South Portland’s planning director, Tex Haeuser, hatched the idea back in 2012. The city appeared on track to break new ground, but since then, the first such project has been built in Belfast. In a way, that might be a good thing, as it allowed the Waldo County seaport to play canary in the coal mine, to use an energy-related metaphor.

“We’ve really had to hammer out with the (Maine Public Utilities Commission) what it means to build solar on top of a landfill,” said Fortunat Mueller, co-founder of ReVision Energy, which spearheaded planning and construction of that site.

But in addition to letting someone else work out all the bureaucratic details, the delay also may save South Portland some significant coin.

Last September, and about the time ReVison was driving posts into the Belfast landfill to support solar panels, South Portland issued a request for proposals for a similar project, which would have funneled power to a host of city-owned properties. Two bids came in, but both were ultimately rejected.

“Neither deal’s structure was in the best interest of the city,” Rosenbach said in a March 10 memo.

Since then, the city has decided to piggy back on a solar-array project ReVision is working on with South Portland’s big sister across the river, at its capped landfill off Ocean Avenue. Although work at the 35-acre Highland Avenue site will cost South Portland upwards of $2.6 million, having ReVision bang out both that and the Portland project simultaneously will save both cities nearly $326,000 in upfront construction costs.

“If Portland decides this is not a good project to move forward with, that affects our project. So, we’ve been working handin hand with Portland,” Rosenbach said.

If the two projects come off, they would be the largest such solar array in the state.

Under the deal, both Portland and South Portland would sign six-year power purchase agreements for the solar panel infrastructure from ReVision, paying a premium of about $50,000 per year on the cost of electricity generated. However, the cities would receive federal tax credits and, after six years, have an option to purchase the equipment outright.

According to ReVision’s financial director, Steve Hinchman, that all means that South Portland can expect to save between $2 million and $5 million on the cost of electricity over the 40-year lifespan of the solar panels.

Still, South Portland officials say money is not the sole reason for launching the project.

“I don’t want to underestimate the fact that we view this collaboration as a really, really great opportunity, not only to save money, but as a joint effort to bring renewable energy to the region,” Rosenbach said.

According to Hinchman, the solar power generated would offset more than 1.3 million pounds, or 655 tons, of carbon dioxide emissions now generated each year by South Portland city operations.

However, before anything happens, local officials want to know what will come of a bill not before the state Legislature that would compel Central Maine Power to continue so-called net metering, the practice that allows those who generate solar and wind power to sell excess energy back into the grid. Now that solar power in Maine accounts for 1 percent of all electricity that travels over CMP lines, it has an application filed with the PUC to end the net metering program.

Rosenbach and Haeuser had plans to travel to Augusta Wednesday to lobby for the passage of the bill, after the deadline for this week’s Sentry.

Return to top