Council moving forward on foam ban, solar project

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BRUNSWICK — The Town Council this week directed staff to move forward with two environmental initiatives pitched at their Dec. 7 meeting.

The first is a draft ordinance to ban the sale and use of polystyrene foam packaging in town, part of a broader measure that includes charging a fee on single-use bags.

The second is a proposal for ReVision Energy of Portland to install solar panels on the Brunswick Recreation Center at the former naval air station and sell solar energy to the town at an agreed-upon rate.

Councilor John Richardson, who sponsored the solar proposal, said Monday that he saw the two measures as related.

The solar array “does not just make economic sense,” he said. “But all the sense in the world given what we’ve heard tonight … about Styrofoam.”

Foam ban

The measure presented to the council Monday night was born from a proposal by the citizen’s group Bring Your Own Bag – Midcoast to charge a 5-cent fee on single-use bags in town as well as ban polystyrene foam, commonly known by the trade name “Styrofoam,” packaging.

But after receiving heavy questioning on the bag fee at the council’s Oct. 19 meeting, the group decided to “divide and conquer,” said Recycling and Sustainability Committee Chairman Alex Anesko on Monday.

“(We) didn’t hear a lot of opposition to the polystyrene ban,” said Councilor Steve Walker, one of the measure’s sponsor. “So we thought: why not bring it back … to this council?”

And the group did bring it back: On Monday night, Council Chambers were filled to capacity with foam ban supporters, most of them identifying themselves with little green stickers bearing the name of the environmental group and the image of a moose.

Recycling and Sustainability Committee and BYOBM member Punnie Edgerton presented data supporting the measure, such as the fact that polystyrene is not biodegradable, and that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recognizes an association between the compound and certain types of cancer.

“Once we have (polystyrene) in our society it’s very hard to get rid of,” she said.

She also added that in a survey of 32 Brunswick small businesses conducted by BYOBM, 22 said they did not use any foam packaging at all. But, she added, three businesses said they outright opposed the ban.

Councilors in October had questioned the enforceability of such a measure. Edgerton responded Monday by presenting recommendations from the Recycling and Sustainability Committee for enforcement by citizen complaints.

She said residents who noticed violations could contact the town manager or police. The town could then issue a written warning for initial violations, and fines ranging around $100 for later breaches.

The measure as drafted would allow a 6-month lead-in time for businesses to use up all of their existing foam packaging, and would include an exception for packaging of live seafood such as foam lobster coolers.

She said the draft language was based heavily on Portland’s foam ban, which went into effect in April. Freeport has had a foam ban since 1990, and South Portland recently passed its own restriction.

The proposal was met with support from councilors.

“I’m satisfied that the cost is not an issue for any business, small or large,” said Councilor Dan Harris, responding to numbers provided by BYOBM showing minimal cost differences for purchasing paper or recyclable plastic packaging instead of polystyrene.

Councilor Suzan Wilson said that although she supported the measure, “it is a big shift,” and she wanted the town to send letters out to any affected Brunswick businesses before the council took action on the proposed ordinance.

The council unanimously voted to direct staff to work on the ordinance language before it comes back for a council workshop or public hearing.

Speaking after the vote, Anesko, of the Recycling and Sustainability Committee, clarified that the ordinance would only apply to polystyrene products used for on-site packaging or sale, and not to pre-packaged food like meat or vegetables.

He conceded that although that category of packaging is significant, “even (grocery stores) have so little control over it … it’s just not practical.”

Councilor Kathy Wilson asked the council not to forget “what’s behind (this measure).”

“We know (this material) is bad for us,” she said. “So we need to figure this out.”

Solar project

The council also voted Monday to have staff move forward with a proposed plan to install solar panels on the roof of the Brunswick Recreation Center.

The plan is “unique,” according to Councilor Richardson, the measure’s sponsor, in that the town would not actually own the solar panels, at least not right away.

Instead, the town would enter a “power purchase agreement” with ReVision Energy of Portland, who would privately own and operate the panels. The town would buy electricity at 9.5 cents a kilowatt-hour, which is currently below market rate, according to a financial projection done by the Town Manager’s office with ReVision Energy.

That rate would increase by 3 percent a year, Richardson said, higher than a conservative estimate for market increase. But the advantage, he said, is that the town would have the option to buy the panels outright after six years for about $135,800.

The result is an estimated savings of about about $215,000 over 30 years, according to the cost projection. The panels would supply about 70 percent of the Rec Center’s energy needs, or about 129,500 kWh a year.

Councilor John Perreault said that although he “trusts (Richardson) and ReVision,” he’d want to see other companies’ terms for power purchase agreements before fully supporting the plan.

Richardson countered by saying he’d solicited multiple solar companies at the beginning of the process, and ReVision was the only company that responded.

Councilor Suzan Wilson supported Richardson, arguing that some arrangements, like power purchase agreements, “are so unique, that there aren’t that many people that do the work you’re looking for.”

Councilors also vocally worried about the need to replace the Rec Center’s roof, which is currently scheduled to be done in six years in the town’s Capital Improvement Plan. Town Manager John Eldridge said staff could look at both the roof’s current structural integrity as well as an option for a partial roof replacement that could be done in the near future.

But with a federal solar energy tax credit that expires in December 2016, “time is our enemy here,” said Richardson. That tax credit, which is 30 percent on the purchase of the solar array, is factored into all of the project’s current cost modeling.

The council unanimously voted to send the proposal back to staff to have a more fleshed-out analysis come before the council in early 2016.

Walter Wuthmann can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or Follow Walter on Twitter: @wwuthmann.

The group Bring Your Own Bag – Midcoast is advocating for polystyrene foam bans and single-use bag fees in Brunswick and Topsham.

Brunswick/Harpswell reporter for The Forecaster. Bowdoin College grad, San Francisco Bay Area native. Follow for municipal, school, community, and environmental news from the Midcoast.