ELLSWORTH — Solar farms are on the way to Ellsworth. At its Nov. 4 meeting, the Planning Board unanimously deemed complete an application for a 42.3-acre solar farm on Bucksport Road.
The board had previously approved the final application of a comparatively tiny array to power Superior Docks, a Christian Ridge Road business.
The proposed Bucksport Road solar farm would be set on 107 leased acres set in the rural and drinking water zone and entered via an existing access road. Between distance and vegetation, the 17,328-panel array will be hidden from passing drivers and Branch Lake boaters, according to Dale F. Knapp of environmental consultants Boyle Associates, the agent for developer Consolidated Edison. The company is planning five more solar projects in Maine.
“We’re going to keep a lot of the woods,” Knapp said. “The visual impact from Bucksport Road will be zero.”
With the required permit applications for stormwater runoff, decommissioning and road access accepted by the state agencies responsible, Planning Board discussion centered on specifics of the plan, such as fences, lights, emergency access and security.
Mike Hangge, the life and safety inspector for the Code Enforcement Department, checked that the two hammerhead-style emergency vehicle turnouts matched the 35-foot radius and 50-foot depth required. They did, as does an existing gravel turnout outside the gate, which will be placed roughly 1,000 feet from the road entry point. Hangge noted that turnout would be needed for response to any grass or forest fire inside the site, “not for anything on the array.”
While an emergency plan is not required for Planning Board approval, and Knapp noted that plans are usually created before operations begin, Chairman John DeLeo asked for a draft before any building permit is issued.
“We should have some sort of a draft before you start construction,” DeLeo said, which could be as basic as a list of current emergency responder phone numbers.
Board members questioned the placement of the gate.
“It seems like it’s inviting people to be on the land, somehow,” DeLeo said.
But Chris Byers, senior project manager with Boyle Associates, said the gate placement was typical for solar projects and a second gate would hinder “quick access to the array.”
Solar farms are generally not attractive to vandals or thieves, Knapp noted, because of their site locations and, similar to electrical substations, fear of injury or death when tampering with the equipment. The gate will be chained and padlocked, with a lockbox present for emergency access. Once operational, Knapp said the site will only be visited twice a year for routine maintenance.
A native ground cover will be planted below the array, which will be enclosed by an agricultural fence. Panels will be on 4-6-foot posts, and a 20-foot road will lead to the array site, narrowing to 15 feet over wetlands to minimize environmental effects.
“It’s a good plan,” board member Rick Lyles summed up.
“The TRT set us up for success by providing us with a lot of information,” Knapp said. The TRT, or Technical Review Team, consists of the city police chief, fire chief, highway foreman, water superintendent, wastewater superintendent, code enforcement officer and planner.
Community solar farms, designed to provide power to Maine consumers, are the new trend in renewable energy initiatives in Maine after bipartisan legislation passed in 2019 relaxed net energy billing and other restrictions. Net energy billing allows customers to offset their electricity bills using the output from small renewable generators. The Planning Board earlier this year approved a smaller Mariaville Road solar project sufficient to power city buildings and schools. Councilors in October approved a 20-year power purchase agreement with the developer of that project, Portsmouth, N.H.-based SunRaise.
“This project is one of many that is happening all over the state right now,” Knapp said.
The so-named Ellsworth Solar Project will be owned and operated by Ellsworth ME 1, LLC, a subsidiary Con Ed created for the project.