Portland council panel endorses solar project, recycling carts

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PORTLAND — By this time next year, recycling could be on a roll in Portland.

A plan forwarded by City Manager Jon Jennings and Sustainability Coordinator Troy Moon to purchase carts for storing recyclable materials and three semi-automated trucks to collect the materials was endorsed by a 2-1 vote July 20 by the City Council Energy & Sustainability Committee.

Committee members also endorsed a plan to construct a solar farm on the capped landfill on Ocean Avenue, but deferred action on a similar plan on Peaks Island until the Peaks Island Council weighs in.

Discussion of an ordinance to require some city property owners to share data on energy use was postponed to September.

Councilor Ed Suslovic opposed the phased approach to the collection of solid waste and recyclables because he found it too piecemeal.

“I would prefer we would put out an RFP for a combined approach and see what comes back,” he said.

Chairman Jon Hinck and Councilor Spencer Thibodeau put off more discussion about collecting solid waste in the city in order to deal first with recyclables collections.

“I think the program is working great except the recycling bin is not closed, and that is what I would like to address today,” Thibodeau said.

Suslovic and Hinck have both questioned how the city collects solid waste and recyclables since before Jennings became city manager a year ago. Hinck still has doubts the “pay-per-bag” system in place since 1999 is the best approach.

An attorney and co-founder of Greenpeace, Hinck said he opposes “government requiring people to buy plastic in order to throw it out.”

City residents pay $2.70 each for 30-gallon bags collected by city Public Works crews.

The 16- or 18-gallon recycling bins provided by the city were considered a bigger problem because the lack of lids causes wind-blown litter. Last summer, University of Southern Maine researchers, led by Dr. Travis Wagner, collected more than 20,000 pieces per 1,000 households of recyclable litter each week while following two collection routes.

Moon estimated it could cost the city $1.25 million to buy 25,000, 64- or 96-gallon carts to hold recyclables and $840,000 for three new semi-automated trucks. He said grant opportunities may exist to defray the cost of the carts, and three fleet trucks need to be replaced next year anyway.

The city is not intending to charge residents for the carts.

The first phase, planned to be in effect by July 1, 2017, fits in well with other demands for capital improvement spending, Jennings said.

“It does not negate moving to a full cart system in the future when we determine other funding sources,” he said of the future of collecting solid waste.

Councilors were unanimous in recommending the entire council approve a contract with Revision Energy to build a solar farm to produce 1.2 million kilowatt hours annually through the 40-year life of the panels.

Jennings asked councilors to recommend the plan that includes a site buyout from Revision after 10 years instead of the seven years at $1.6 million that has been proposed.

He prefers a 10-year buyout in 2026 because that is the year debt service on a 25-year note to pay the city’s pension obligations to the Maine State Retirement Fund are retired, creating more financial flexibility.

“I understand we would all like to pay it off in seven years, but I also worry about paving roads and other things that need to be done by the city,” Jennings said.

Revision Financial Director Steve Hinchman said the city buyout after 10 years of Revision operating the farm and earning the revenue from generated electricity would be less than $1.6 million, perhaps by $250,000. He said he would revise his spreadsheet to show the new buyout amount.

On the seven-year model, the city could expect to save $3.3 million in energy costs by generating 3.5 percent of the electricity now used by municipal government. That is the equivalent of powering City Hall, Mayor Ethan Strimling said in support of the plan.

Before the buyout, the city would invest about $25,000 annually, according to a Revision spreadsheet.

The Ocean Avenue project is part of a joint venture with Portland and South Portland. South Portland councilors have approved the construction of a solar farm at the capped landfill off Highland Avenue.

The city has also been asked to lease the capped landfill on Peaks Island to a group looking to provide 138,000 annual kWh of solar power to homeowners on the island and in the city.

While supportive of the plan, councilors wanted input from the Peaks Island Council, which was meeting simultaneously July 20. 

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Lidless bins for recyclable materials in Portland, seen July 20 on Brackett Street, could be replaced by larger wheeled bins within a year.

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Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.