Committees to shed light on Cumberland solar array proposal

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CUMBERLAND — The Town Council on Monday voted unanimously to have two panels work together toward bringing a solar farm – geared toward meeting most of the town’s electricity needs – closer to reality.

The town’s Finance Committee will collaborate with the Cumberland Climate Action Team to solicit proposals for a solar array, which would be installed atop a capped landfill on Drowne Road. The panels are scheduled to bring a proposal to the council by March 26.

The landfill occupies about 5 acres. Although the gently sloped part of the land closer to Drowne Road, about two-thirds of the parcel, has been eyed for the array in order to maximize its impact, neighborhood concerns about the visual impact could lead town officials to consider other options.

The town spends about $120,000 annually on electricity, including about $70,000-$80,000 for nine municipal properties that include Town Hall, the Val Halla Golf & Recreation Center, Central Fire Station, public works garage and Prince Memorial Library, according to a presentation prepared by CCAT members Eric Fitz, Denny Gallaudet and Jane Wilson.

Those properties consume roughly 650,000 kilowatt-hours each year – 80 percent of the municipal government’s total energy consumption. Maine Public Utilities Commission regulations for distributed solar energy currently limit municipalities to 10 meters, or accounts, that use energy from solar arrays, according to Gallaudet.

Cumberland’s nine largest municipal accounts, along with one at the landfill to measure output, would generate 650,000 kWh of the 800,000 the town consumes. As a result, about 80 percent of the town’s usage would be covered by a 1,600-panel solar array at the landfill.

Thanks to a system called net metering, customers earn credits for times they produce more electricity than they need, like on a sunny summer day. Like rainy day funds, those credits are used to offset days when production is underperforming, like on a dark winter day.

“The idea is that over a 12-month period, you’re net zero; your piggy bank ends up being empty” over that time period, Fitz explained. “That’s net metering.”

If the town produces the energy it needs over the course of a year, the net would be zero, so the town would incur no charge. If it were short and had to buy it back, it would do so at the standard rate from Central Maine Power, Town Manager Bill Shane said last month.

Since the southern portion of the landfill has steeper terrain, CCAT has called for the array to be installed on the flatter northern piece. 

Ken Lehman of Tacoma Lane, a street within the new Village Green neighborhood near the proposed array site, expressed concern Monday about the project’s location. While the goals and work of CCAT are “laudable,” he said, “I think that there has been … no consideration of the impact of the placement of these solar panels” upon people living nearby.

“I find that the visual impact of this is potentially quite serious,” Lehman said. “Before the town rushes headlong into doing this … there (should) be significant consideration made to (whether this is) an appropriate location for this project,” as well as the impact on future planned development in that part of town.

Fitz called the proposed placement of the array “just our best guess” in terms of best solar exposure.

“But some of this will play out when we get it officially surveyed,” he added, noting that “we definitely have been thinking about impacts for the residents that walk by it, or what it’s going to look like. … We’re trying to figure out other options to site it so that it has minimal visual impact for residents that are close by.”

If the project moves forward, Cumberland would have a company install the panels at a cost of about $1.2 million. To take advantage of federal renewable energy tax credits and reduce expenses, the array would be sold through a power purchase agreement to an outside investor.

When the tax credits expire in about six years, the town would purchase the array at a 50-60 percent discount, according to Gallaudet and Fitz. It could then have free electricity for the life of the array, which could be 40 years. The municipality could save $2.4 million as a result, Fitz said.

The town meanwhile could put aside $3,000 a year to cover any maintenance costs that might arise, like replacing the array’s inverter, he noted.

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

Cumberland officials are considering installation of a solar array on about 60 percent of an approximately 5-acre capped landfill. The flatter portion, closest to Drowne Road, is deemed the most efficient location by the Cumberland Climate Action Team, although neighbors have expressed concern about visual impacts from the array’s placement there.

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A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.