Cumberland eyes landfill for solar energy array

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CUMBERLAND — A brown field may soon help the town be a lot more green.

Officials are looking into installing a solar array on top of the town’s capped landfill, a project they say could allow Cumberland to generate cleaner energy from the sun while reducing its carbon footprint and shrinking expenses in the long run.

Town Manager Bill Shane has spent several months discussing proposals with Denny Gallaudet and Eric Fitz, members of the Cumberland Climate Action Team. Shane said the discussion began when the nearly complete expansion of Central Fire Station, which has infrastructure that could support solar panels on the roof, led them to ask “‘could we do something bigger?'”

The Cumberland officials were also inspired by South Portland, which installed a solar array on its capped landfill last year.

“It’s a very popular thing across the country, because landfill space is absolutely unusable,” Shane said, noting that Cumberland’s landfill is composed of about 4 acres of gently-sloped land around which there are no trees.

“It makes it great for solar capacity,” he said.

Shane discussed the concept with ReVision Energy, which recently installed a 160-panel array at the Cumberland Animal Clinic on Greely Road, and they agreed a project would be feasible at the landfill.

The Town Council received data on the benefits in a Jan. 22 workshop with Gallaudet and Fitz, who will make a formal presentation to the panel Monday, Feb. 12.

According to information provided by both men, the town spends about $120,000 annually on electricity, including about $70,000-$80,000 for nine municipal properties like Town Hall, the Val Halla Golf & Recreation Center, Central Fire Station, public works garage and Prince Memorial Library.

Those properties consume roughly 650,000 kilowatt hours annually, or 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, Gallaudet said Jan. 25.

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, so about 80 percent of the town’s usage would be covered by a 1,600-panel solar array at the landfill, he said.

The town would still have service charges and, for larger accounts like Town Hall, a demand charge, to “reserve a slug of power for you at your highest peak,” Shane said. “You pay for that; that doesn’t go away. It’s basically the electrons that you’re generating, to lights and heat” that would be offset.

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, Shane said.

“If we were short, and we had to buy it back, we’d buy it at the standard rate from (Central Maine Power),” he explained.

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 – in South Portland’s case, Florida-based Kenyon Energy.

When the tax credits expire in six years, the town would purchase the array at a 50-60 percent discount, according to Gallaudet and Fitz.

If the cost is about $500,000, down from the approximately $1.2 million original cost, “for a half a million dollars, now you have electricity for free for the next 20, 25 years,” Shane said. “It’s a really cool idea. … It really puts the green stamp, if you will, on our commitment toward energy reduction and trying to be good environmental stewards.”

Similarly, seven members of the Cumberland Congregational Church formed CCC Solar, a company that paid about $35,000 to have a panel array installed on the sanctuary roof of the 282 Main St. church in 2016. Once it recovers its investment, the company plans to sell the array to the church “at a nominal cost,” according to Lalla Carothers, the CCC’s “green team” coordinator.

The town could take some action within the coming months due to an anticipated change in net metering regulation. While towns can currently buy the power it needs, and sell it when it generates an excess – a one-for-one swap, Gallaudet and Fitz explained – state regulators are due April 30 to reduce the net metering benefit for excess generation by 10 percent.

“The renewable energy credits go from 100 percent down to 90 percent, so the tax incentive is less,” Shane explained. “That’s why we’d like to get this done, and get the documentation signed, in early April, so we can get in the queue for 100 percent.”

The Town Council could vote on the project in late March or early April.

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

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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.