Portland residents promote solar power 'farming'

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PORTLAND — A group of city residents are trying to generate interest in life on the farm – a community solar farm.

In a 6:30 p.m. open house Wednesday at St. Luke’s Church, 143 State St., members of Sierra Club’s Portland Climate Action Team will explain how solar farms expand sustainable energy use.

They are also seeking investment in a farm in Kennebec County, and possibly one on Ocean Avenue.

The community solar farm in Wayne, a Kennebec County town of 1,200, will be operated on land owned by West End Neighborhood Association member Roseanne Graef, Sierra Club Maine Director Glen Brand said July 15.

By state law, it is limited to nine investors, and is expected to have a 52 kilowatt capacity, Brand said.

Retired mechanical engineer Allen Armstrong, a West End resident, said he is ready to invest.

“Anything that is being generated by this is not going to be generated by fossil fuel burning and that is important to us,” Armstrong said, adding it will allow him to completely source his electricity through solar power.

Armstrong lives in a historic home subject to oversight by the city Historic Preservation Board and not entirely suited to full conversion to solar panels.

The six panels generate about 1,200 kilowatt hours of electricity a year, about a quarter of what he and his wife use annually.

The output could be greater, but the panels are not placed at optimum places and snow sometimes covers them, he said.

Armstrong will also speak about investing at the open house.

“The first thing is to make people aware of all the things that pertain to their individual house site that could keep them from putting meaningful solar panels there, and how the farm is set up for optimal production,” he said.

An investor in a community solar farm does not directly reap the electricity generated at farm, especially as one as distant from the city as Wayne. The harvest is a financial one, because Central Maine Power is required to buy the generated power.

“It amounts to real money, no matter how you look at it,” Brand said.

Robert Stoddard, who will lead the open house, said he expects a 12-year return of investment from the farm in Wayne.

He said panels with a 6 kilowatt capacity would require an $18,000 investment and generate at least 7,300 kilowatt hours of power annually. Currently, that would be worth at least $1,000.

The return on investment could be captured in 12 years if electricity rates increase as he expects at 3 percent annually, Stoddard said.

A series of smaller farms, or one large one, could possibly be developed at the uncapped city-owned landfill off Ocean Avenue, near the Falmouth town line.

City Councilor Jon Hinck said he sees advantages to an investor leasing some of the land and installing solar panels.

“I think we could do more to make solar-generated power a more substantial part of the mix of electric generation in southern Maine,” Hinck said Monday.

Brand said the production would easily eclipse the farm in Wayne.

“It is land that cannot be developed and it is clear,” Brand said. “We are all excited about its potential, it could be in the megawatts.”

Brand has approached Hinck and city Sustainability Coordinator Ian Houseal with plans for a farm.

Houseal said Monday the preliminary indications show a farm is possible and a required permit from the state Department of Environmental Protection is possible.

A costly factor will be a CMP transmission line to the site. Any lease would also have to be approved by the City Council, and Hinck said current municipal finances could be a challenge.

“It could be difficult for the city to pony up cash,” he said.

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

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.