ELLSWORTH — City councilors on Monday approved signing a 20-year contract with Portsmouth, N.H.-based SunRaise for the city to purchase net energy billing credits generated by a solar farm to be built off Mariaville Road. The vote was 6-1, with Councilor Michelle Kaplan voting against the project.
A second and separate contract with SunRaise for energy credits generated from a neighboring site on Mariaville Road will be brought forward at the council’s Nov. 16 meeting, interim City Manager Glenn Moshier said.
Together, the two solar farms will generate enough electricity to power all city buildings, he said.
The state’s net energy billing plan allows customers, in this case the city, to offset their electricity bills using the output from small renewable generators. The city itself is not “going solar” but instead purchasing credits for solar energy already loaded onto the local electrical grid.
“You have to be nuanced in how you talk about it,” said Sarah Tracy, a Portland attorney with Pierce Atwood representing SunRaise.
The 11,000-panel solar project received unanimous Planning Board approval in June, with the caveat that board members review a decommissioning plan for the panels. The board approved that plan in September. The two sites are now referred to as the Industrial Road site and the Mariaville Road site.
The city’s contract with SunRaise binds Ellsworth to purchase 74 percent of the electricity generated by the solar site at a net energy tariff rate the Public Utilities Commission sets every Jan. 1. The industrial Road site is projected to save the city an annual estimated $110,000 in electricity costs, while the Mariaville Road site is projected to save the city about $70,000 yearly. The city used roughly 5.4 million kilowatts hours in 2019, according to Moshier. He said the city could save $3.6 million over the 20-year lifespan of the contract.
However, not all of the savings will be passed on to taxpayers, Council Chairman Dale Hamilton said. “As these credits come through and get applied to the city, we have different accounts.” Some, such as water and sewer, are enterprise accounts, meaning they are mainly driven through fees, he explained. “A significant portion [of the energy credits] will be going into those enterprise accounts.”
Former City Manager David Cole said the proportion would be two-thirds to tax-driven accounts and one-third to enterprise accounts.
Councilor Kaplan, who voted against the project, took issue with the sourcing of the solar panels that will be used at the site. SunRaise has contracted with Chinese company Longi for the panels, and Kaplan said her recent research found that the company Longi uses for sourcing heavy metals used in the panels and batteries uses child slave labor to mine the metals.
“Knowing the human rights cost of this, I just can’t get on board,” Kaplan said.
SunRaise Senior Project Developer Patrick Jackson, attending remotely, said he had already notified his team to research the issue. “If we find this, we won’t be using Longi on any other projects,” he said.
Construction on the Industrial Road site will begin in late spring 2021 and be completed in the fall.
Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled the name of Sarah Tracy.