City solar regulations still a work in progress

ELLSWORTH — City Planning Department staff have made a good start, but as of last Wednesday, Planning Board members weren’t quite ready to send draft regulations on solar and other energy systems to the council for consideration.

The guidelines, which set out to regulate power generating facilities (such as hydro-, wind- or fuel-powered turbines and solar) along with systems to store the generated energy (such as batteries, fly wheels and hydro dams), were proposed in light of the city’s solicitation for a firm to install solar panels at several possible sites. (Officials are also open to other types of renewable energy, including hydroelectric and wind power, but have acknowledged that a solar farm is the most likely scenario.)

On Jan. 8, Planning Board members said the guidelines should focus on solar systems, rather than other power generating facilities, with plans for decommissioning and/or removing the panels at the end of their life, clarifications on height restrictions and more details on how the city would regulate industrial-size battery storage systems.

“I think that’s very critical,” said board member John DeLeo, that if the “developer walks away from the solar farm that the Ellsworth taxpayer’s not stuck with ‘What do we do with 10,000 solar panels?’”

In York, pointed out Janna Richards, who oversees the Ellsworth Planning Department, the city’s ordinance requires that any large-scale solar producer submit a guarantee when the plans are approved that it will pay 150 percent of the estimated demolition cost of the system.

Other municipalities have required developers to put funds in escrow or make other guarantees that they will help dispose of the panels.

Board member Rick Lyles said he thought that 150 percent might be a little high, but wondered if the city could come up with “something in the middle,” that would ensure the city wouldn’t have to pay for disposal or replacement of the panels.

Lyles also raised concerns about height restrictions. As written, the guidelines allow panels “up to 3 feet above a roof,” but don’t specify whether they would be allowed on roofs already at the maximum height or where the 3 feet should be measured from.

“I think you need to be way more specific about your height,” said Lyles. “If this is going to go above a building that’s already at the max, another 3 feet, that’s a lot.”

The city doesn’t count structures such as cupolas in height requirements, but “This is a lot different than a cupola,” said Lyles, “because you could have something that’s the entire length of a residential structure.”

Board members also asked for clarification on energy storage systems, such as batteries.

“If somebody wanted to put in a hydro dam just to make a fish pond,” DeLeo asked, “is that considered an energy storage system?”

As for batteries, the most common storage system for solar energy, ones on a small scale are already allowed, but, “If it’s a battery that you need a trailer to move around then that’s a particular class and you can only have that in particular places,” suggested board member Nelson Geel.

Many large-scale solar systems feed directly into the grid, but some do store energy for off-peak times, said City Manager David Cole.

“There are facilities of large-scale battery storage facilities so they can store the power until the optimal time to put it into the grid, until the air conditioners are cranking up or people are getting home at night in Boston or New York.”

Under the proposal, large-scale solar systems would be allowed in all zones except downtown, the neighborhood zone or in Commerce Park. Small-scale systems would be allowed everywhere except Commerce Park.

“Wind power opens up another can of worms for regulating that I’m not sure we’re ready to do right now,” said City Planner Jef Fitzgerald.

“If we feel like we should have more regulations for wind power then we should do that separately. Some of these things could be fleshed out more.”

Board members voted to table sending the regulations to City Council for approval until changes can be made.

Kate Cough

Kate Cough

Kate covers the city of Ellsworth, including the Ellsworth School Department and the city police beat, as well as the towns of Amherst, Aurora, Eastbrook, Great Pond, Mariaville, Osborn, Otis and Waltham. She lives in Southwest Harbor and welcomes story tips and ideas. She can be reached at [email protected]
Kate Cough

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