Neighbors not sold on Cumberland solar array

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CUMBERLAND — The Town Council on Monday voted 6-1 to work with ReVision Energy on potential installation of a solar farm to meet most of the town’s electricity needs.

The array would be built atop a capped landfill on Drowne Road.

The panel authorized its Finance Committee to negotiate a power purchase agreement with ReVision. That pact must return to the council for full approval, which could happen May 14.

The fact that no public comment was taken Monday riled several audience members, who live at the nearby Village Green housing development and have concerns about the visual impact of a solar farm, as well as adverse effects on their property values.

But Council Chairman Mike Edes assured residents they will have the opportunity to speak when the agreement comes before the council for consideration.

“Nothing is sealed yet,” Councilor Bill Stiles told the audience. “We’re still looking at it, looking at where it would be positioned, looking at possible screening.”

Video of the meeting is posted at vimeo.com/266290618.

Councilor Tom Gruber, who voted against the motion, said he supports solar panels and the goal of reducing carbon footprints. “The issue is the location,” he said.

Gruber confirmed with Denny Gallaudet of the Cumberland Climate Action Team that no other locations had been considered for the solar panel.

“The landfill makes really a lot of common sense, because it’s not really usable for anything else,” Gallaudet said. He added, though, that “all we need is 4 acres somewhere in town; that’s the footprint.”

He noted there is ample space on the landfill to provide flexibility in siting a solar array.

The CCAT and town officials planned this week to meet with representatives from ReVision and further tweak its proposal, Town Manager Bill Shane said in a council memo April 19.

One change could be the array’s location. ReVision proposed placing it closer to Drowne Road, while town officials are looking to have it farther back from the road closer to the Town Forest, Shane said.

Concerns from Village Green about the solar array piggyback on those from residents about when the relocation of the Public Works garage, salt shed, and school bus building, also neighboring on Drowne Road, will occur. Space has become tight at those facilities, and relocation would facilitate more housing development, placing the land on the tax rolls.

Cumberland officials have eyed vacant town-owned land bordered by Tuttle Road and the Town Forest, as well as a piece of Cumberland Fairgrounds property, as relocation sites, but both plans have stalled. Councilor Peter Bingham noted that no one wants such a facility near where they live.

A neighborhood meeting on the relocation of Public Works is to be held at Town Hall at 6 p.m. Monday, May 14, prior to that evening’s 7 p.m. council meeting.

Councilors said they have received several letters concerning the array from Village Green residents who oppose the project as proposed.

“The neighborhood increasingly feels, sounds and looks like an industrial complex with decisions made by the town that blatantly disfavor Village Green and renege on previous agreements,” Katherine Pelletreau of Drowne Road wrote April 22, criticizing that Public Works has yet to move, and the Village Green development has yet to be fully implemented.

“Meeting the town’s energy needs through alternative sources of power such as solar makes sense,” she added, “but there are lots of better spaces in Cumberland – Twin Brooks or the roofs of the new fire station or school buildings for example – better suited to this project that wouldn’t pose risks to resident housing values and aesthetics the way the current proposal does.”

Dennis and Mary Chick of Wyman Way pointed out that “(l)ocating on a landfill appears to be a good choice for South Portland and Belfast, but these locations are not adjacent to planned subdivisions or neighborhoods.  They are located out of sight.”

Councilor George Turner on Monday cautioned residents against assuming their property values would be compromised by a nearby solar array.

“I can assure you that we don’t have any desire to diminish anybody’s values, because that’s where revenues come from, and that’s where taxes are paid,” he said. “As this process goes forward, I think this council in general is going to be very careful to do all it can, if indeed this site ends up being the site, to protect you from any adverse effect of the project.”

Edes on Tuesday called the agenda item “poorly worded, in that it left some indication that there was going to be public comment last night. … We’re going to give the people of that neighborhood, and the people that are concerned about the solar panels, plenty of time to speak.”

There will also be an opportunity to weigh in when the project goes before the Planning Board, he added.

“I think that we can meet the neighbors’ needs as well as our needs,” Edes said, noting the need for adequate buffering.

ReVision’s proposal

ReVision proposes building a $1.1 million array, with 1,376 panels that generate about 617,000 kilowatt-hours annually. 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.

“Instead of (Central Maine Power), we’re paying this solar group,” Shane said.

When the tax credits expire in about six years, the town could purchase the array for about $663,000, according to ReVision’s proposal.

While there is no obligation to do so, not buying it “would be a lost opportunity for sure, because we would save about $80,000 a year in annual power costs,” the manager explained.

The municipality could then have free electricity for the life of the array, which could be 40 years. The town could save $2.4 million as a result, CCAT member Eric Fitz said in February.

The town spends about $120,000 each year 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 earlier this year by CCAT members Jane Wilson, Gallaudet and Fitz.

Those properties consume roughly 650,000 kW 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.

The town, which also received a proposal from Ameresco, went with ReVision because of the lower cost, its smaller project scope that is more in line with the PUC limit, and its experience around Maine, Shane said.

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

This visual shows one potential alignment of a solar panel array at a capped landfill off Drowne Road in Cumberland. The town’s Public Works facility sits directly to the west, along with neighboring Village Green housing development. Drowne Road Apartments, which house seniors, are to the north.

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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.