ELLSWORTH — The city will save an estimated total of $4 million over the course of 20 years on energy costs thanks to its agreement with the developer of two solar projects on the Mariaville Road.
While officials had previously released a range of estimates, the specifics of the contract were made public during a joint workshop on July 25. The City Council and the Planning Board met to hear from George Wood, a consultant from Oak Point Associates and expert on energy markets in New England, and to discuss the future of solar in Ellsworth.
Wood worked on the negotiations between the city and SunRaise, now ReWild Renewables, to specify how much each party would receive from those two solar projects through the Net Energy Benefits (NEB) program created by the state Legislature in June of 2019.
It was this program that led to the initial boom in project applications as developers rushed to take advantage of the funds made available by the state. Wood explained to the council that the sheer amount of land available in Ellsworth plus its proximity to substations, which makes it easier to connect the solar farms to the energy grid, make the city a desirable location.
During this initial surge, the city approved seven large-scale solar projects, along with one medium-scale project, before the moratorium was put in place in October of 2021. All of these projects were approved, or approved with conditions, under the existing solar ordinance guidelines and all are currently in different phases of development.
The two on Mariaville Road have been built and are operational, with a few finishing touches still required. One project, at 955 Bucksport Road, is currently under construction and four have yet to apply for building permits. Three of those projects still have conditions to meet before they can apply while one project appears as though it will not be moving forward, according to Wood and City Planner Elene Piekut. Approvals for all four projects currently in the permitting process will expire in 2024.
There has not been much interest shown by developers since the moratorium was put in place, however, which Wood explained may be due to several factors. The moratorium itself may have dissuaded potential investors, who see the uncertainty that it presents as a potential risk.
“They’re waiting to see what you guys are going to do,” said Wood, referring to potential changes to the ordinance.
But the main reason for the slowdown in applications is most likely the fact the NEB program has basically maxed out on the number of projects it can sustain, despite an additional round of funding injected into it by the state Legislature in July of last year due to its initial popularity.
“The gold rush has ended,” Wood said. “I’m not sure if there’s another tranche of developers knocking at the door other than projects already in the pipeline.”
The fact that the program was so popular, though, means that a second round of NEB funding is likely to occur. Even if that program were to cease, the state’s aggressive green energy goals make it likely that a similar program would pop up in its place.
And the conditions that make Ellsworth a desirable location for these projects still exist. Piekut explained to those assembled that if all seven solar projects currently in progress were to be built, the structures would cover only .3 percent of the city’s land area, meaning there would still be plenty of land available for development.
To that end, the council and the Planning Board agreed that the city should strengthen the current ordinance and prepare for the possibility of a second rush once the moratorium is lifted.
“We have to think about what we want the future of solar to look like in Ellsworth,” said Council Chairman Dale Hamilton. “Is it something that we cap? What do we want this city to look like with this industry?”
The group discussed tightening up the language around requirements for decommissioning and tweaking certain definitions, such as what constitutes ‘medium’ and ‘large’-scale projects. They also discussed tweaks to the language regarding natural buffers and fencing around the installations. And possible language to incentivize the use of marginal lands, roofs, or even parking lots was an option that was put on the table as well.
The creation of a Payment in Lieu of Taxes, or PILOT, program was one of the larger possible changes brought forth. The hope was that such a program might help recoup some of the revenue lost due to the fact that the solar arrays do not contribute much in the way of property taxes.
Piekut also proposed making additional areas off limits to these projects, including drinking water zones or areas that would have an outsize impact on farmland soils or undeveloped wildlife habitat blocks.
The council was most interested in seeing the language around decommissioning tightened considerably in order to avoid any possibility that the city would be left on the hook for the cleanup.
“I guarantee that the Ellsworth taxpayer will not be on the hook for decommissioning,” Planning Board Chairman John DeLeo assured the council.
They also discussed including language that would require the city receive a certain portion of the revenue from projects in which Ellsworth is involved as an off-taker, such as with the Mariaville Road installations. It was determined, however, that the financial aspect would most likely fall under the purview of the city manager during the negotiation process.
The next step will be for the Planning Board to consider the feedback it received from the council and draft amendments. Members will then proceed through their amendment process, which includes a public hearing and a board vote, before presenting those amendments to the council. The council will then hold a public hearing and vote on whether to officially adopt the changes.
For now, the moratorium remains in place until it expires in September or the council votes to remove it.