South Portland takes step to promote use of solar energy

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SOUTH PORTLAND — New zoning proposed by the Planning and Development Department could encourage the use of solar power across the city.

The Planning Board unanimously recommended the solar zoning amendments Tuesday night that would allow roof-mounted or ground-mounted solar panel systems in virtually all city zones, including residential.

Small-scale solar systems that generate 20 kW of power or less and meet other standards outlined in the ordinance would be “permitted anywhere,” Planning and Development Director Tex Haeuser said at the April 12 meeting.

In mixed-use, commercial and industrial districts, larger-scale systems would be acceptable, subject to permitting required for installation.

Planning Board member Taylor Neff called the city’s solar zoning amendments “needed and much appreciated.”

The City Council will review the board’s recommendation in a workshop scheduled for Monday, May 9.

The city’s biggest proposed solar project to date is a joint venture with Portland to build a $2.6 million solar farm on the city’s capped landfill, off Highland Avenue.

The project would generate 1.2 million kWh of energy each year, and would offset about 12 percent of municipal and school energy consumption, Sustainability Coordinator Julie Rosenbach said in a March workshop.

Steve Hinchman, director of financing for ReVision Energy, told councilors at the workshop that solar power generated would offset the city’s carbon dioxide emissions by more than 1.3 million pounds, or 655 tons per year.

The installation of solar panels would no longer require Planning Board approval. In general, the new amendments would create fewer hoops to jump through and the process would be streamlined, Community Planner Steve Puleo said Tuesday.

Building standards would still apply. In residential zones, for example, roof-mounted solar power systems could not exceed the allowed height of the building.

The use of solar arrays and panels in specific zones are now listed as “special exceptions,” which means applicants are required to explain why solar panels wouldn’t create an excessive impact.

By including solar power in allowed uses, applicants “wouldn’t have the additional hurdle of demonstrating that they’re not creating impacts above and beyond the average (impact),” Haeuser said.

South Portland is one of several cities across the state advocating for increased accessibility to solar power. In a recent op-ed sent to several southern Maine news outlets, City Manager Jim Gailey encouraged the adoption of LD 1649, a bill now before the Legislature, that would “modernize” the state’s solar power policy and boost economic development.

Gailey called the bill “a new and creative way to bring reduced electricity costs to all ratepayers and help municipalities invest in sustainable, low-cost energy to benefit all residents.”

“South Portland is deeply committed to renewable energy solutions, and we are seeking a way to meet some of our energy needs with solar,” Gailey wrote.

“If, as a state, we want to have any chance of catching up with the solar job creation that other New England states are enjoying, and if we want to see solar panels on top of shopping centers and factories as well as homes,” he said, “we all need to support LD 1649 and demand that the Legislature enact this balanced solar policy.”

Alex Acquisto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or Follow Alex on Twitter: @AcquistoA.

South Portland and Scarborough reporter for The Forecaster. Graduate of Western Kentucky University and the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. Alex can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106.