S.P. council mulls viability of 'solar farm'

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SOUTH PORTLAND — A report about the feasibility of constructing a solar farm created what Councilor Patricia Smith called a “mixed bag” at a City Council workshop on Monday night. 

Representatives from ReVision Energy told the council that the city’s capped landfill off Highland Avenue is the perfect site for a solar photovoltaic farm that would produce municipal energy. But they said funding could be a major obstacle, due to lack of financial support and incentives from the state. 

ReVision Director of Finance Steve Hinchman explained that the project would consist of ground-mounted, aluminum panels held in place with a ballasted system and a steel frame. There would be no poles penetrating the landfill. The panels would rest on top of the roughly 2 feet of material – 18 inches of clay cap and 6 inches of soil and vegetation – that cover the waste. 

The project would have to be completed in three phases, each installing a solar panel that would produce 660 kilowatts of power. Each phase would cost about $2.1 million, Hinchman said, excluding legal fees and landfill engineering.  The council could also choose to pursue the project in smaller increments, Hinchman said, with smaller, modular panels. 

In total, the panels would produce about 3 megawatts of energy, and offset about 40 percent of the city’s energy load.

A preliminary financial study revealed that a turnkey approach, or an outright purchase, would not be a wise choice for the city. A power purchase agreement with a third-party financier might be difficult to achieve as well.

Hinchman said the council would have a “difficult time getting a commercial tax investor to make you an offer you wouldn’t choke on without some additional help.” 

The additional help would consist of tax incentives and rate structure reform at the state level. Hinchman said that Maine is one of the only states in New England that does not offer tax credits for such projects, and that the commercial sector is unlikely to want to do business in the state unless the city paid a premium.

A community farm approach, in which residents bought shares of the business, might be a solution. The city could also apply to the Public Utilities Commission for a waiver of the net metering cap, though Hinchman said he was unsure of the likelihood of the PUC granting the waiver.  

Hinchman, Planning and Development Director Tex Haeuser and Finance Director Greg L’Heureux said that incorporating more money into the construction of the new public works building and making it compatible with the array, might be an option. Spending the money up front would make more sense than constructing the building and then having to add expensive upgrades later, they said.

The good thing about the equipment, Hinchman said, is that it’s very durable. Although installation would be a large financial investment for the city, the panels are warrantied for 25 years but usually last about 40; inverters last 15-20 years and the steel frame would last for twice the lifespan of the project.

Hinchman told the council that his firm could easily reevaluate the project at regular intervals and also with different variables, now that ReVision has the city’s model set up.

“It’s not a static study that you stick on the shelf,” he said.

Haeuser said that, while he understood the financial and logistical difficulties, he felt the benefits far outweighed the obstacles.

“Creating a solar PV array on the City’s landfill would help South Portland meet its objectives for reducing the use of fossil fuels and limiting the release of greenhouse gas emissions,” Haeuser wrote in a memo. “It would make a significant statement about the City’s commitment to provide leadership in transitioning to a renewable energy future.”

He suggested moving forward with funding for some of phase 1 of the plan, as well as “including the interconnect infrastructure in the construction of the new Public Works facility,” while also waiting to see if the legislature or PUC efforts changed rate structures and solar project costs.

Council members seemed to feel that this was a good approach to moving forward with solar energy in the city. Though no formal vote was taken, because it was a workshop session, they agreed to continue to work with ReVision. 

“I really want us to move forward,” at-large Councilor Tom Blake said. “This is exciting stuff.”

“It is a mixed bag tonight,” Smith said. “There’s a lot of excitement, a lot of joy, but it’s also a reality check.”

ReVision Energy is the same firm that the city used for the power purchase agreement for the Planning Department’s solar system. After the council expressed interest in solar power at a workshop in November 2013, the Planning Department allocated $12,500 in funding for ReVision’s assessment of feasibility.

Lily O’Gara can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or logara@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @lilyog28.

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