FRANKLIN — The sun is out—and the eager energy from Mainers to get out and take advantage of it is palpable. So is the enthusiasm from solar developers.
Interest in projects that incorporate solar technology, whether it be individual homes or larger solar farms, has boomed lately, marked by the approval of applications for solar development projects by several local planning boards.
In Franklin alone, four projects have been approved, with three of those projects getting the green light from the Planning Board between December and January.
Elsewhere in Hancock County, projects have been proposed in Ellsworth, Hancock, Lamoine, Sedgwick, Trenton and Township 16.
Projects range from solar panels fixed to residential rooftops to solar farms spanning several acres, said Dan Burgess, director of the Maine Governor’s Energy Office.
Average-sized projects produce up to 5 megawatts of energy and occupy about 20 to 30 acres, he added.
A handful of projects are utility-scale projects that can produce up to 100 megawatts. Among them is the Three Rivers Solar Project, a solar farm that will span 465 acres in Township 16 and incorporate 300,000 to 400,000 solar panels, according to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.
The project’s developer, Swift Current Energy, states the project “will be the largest utility-scale solar project constructed in New England when it goes online in 2023.”
Many proposed projects have been incentivized by statewide legislation passed in 2019.
Statewide incentives include net energy billing, Burgess explained. The system allows customers to receive credit on their electricity bills if they offset their energy use through installed panels.
Additionally, businesses and individuals can receive credit by subscribing to community-shared solar projects, third-party solar farms constructed by developers to connect to the electric grid.
A list of approved project sponsors and developers is available on the Maine Public Utilities Commission (PUC) website.
Typically, projects begin when a developer finds available land, applies to be part of the state’s incentive programs and gets added to the list of companies waiting to negotiate an interconnection agreement with the power company. Those negotiations will determine if projects can be added to the electric grid using existing infrastructure or if upgrades to substations need to happen first, Burgess said.
Once a developer and power company reach an “interconnection agreement,” which determines the costs in becoming connected, the developer can move forward with finding customers interested in subscribing to the power that will be generated.
Burgess said determining interconnectivity is the step in the process many projects are currently in.
He acknowledged that “not all of them will get built,” and projects may encounter different challenges. Some developers may want to build where there are already too many projects near a substation.
For many projects, interconnectivity is proving to be a costly issue. The Portland Press Herald reported in February that Central Maine Power adjusted its cost estimates, even after negotiating interconnection agreements with developers.
According to the Feb. 8 report, “A survey sent last week to members of the Maine Renewable Energy Association found that more than 100 solar projects in 74 communities have received revised cost estimates from CMP totaling tens of millions of dollars.”
This prompted Governor Janet Mills to request the PUC investigate why CMP waited until some agreements were settled before revealing technical problems that could require multimillion-dollar upgrades to substations.
So far, it does not appear that Versant Power, which serves most of Hancock County, has had the same issues.
“Versant does have a somewhat different process, so it is difficult to compare the two companies,” Dale Knapp of consulting firm Boyle Associates wrote in an email to The American.
Knapp represents Consolidated Edison Development Inc.
In December, he presented the company’s plans for solar farms in Franklin on the Hog Bay Road and Cards Crossing, which were approved by the Franklin Planning Board.
“We have not heard of similar issues with Versant as we saw reported on recently in the Portland Press Herald regarding interconnection issues with CMP,” Knapp said.
Versant spokeswoman Marissa Minor said in an email to The American “At Versant Power, our approach of engaging early and often with developers has been effective.”
She added, “Interconnecting large numbers of distributed generation projects on small, rural systems presents a number of challenges, but we’re committed to working with developers to meet and overcome these challenges.”
As the number of proposed projects grows, some lawmakers are wondering if the state should hit pause – at least temporarily.
Rep. Seth Berry (D-Bowdoinham), a “staunch supporter” of solar energy, is proposing a resolve “that would place a short moratorium on the financial incentives program … until a group of stakeholders can examine the details,” according to a March 11 report in the Portland Press Herald.
Last fall, the PUC released a report that found the net energy billing program would result in customers experiencing a “substantial increase in electric rates.”
The report’s findings were based on if all proposed solar projects (and there are hundreds) are completed, which Burgess said is unlikely. Another study, done by Daymark Energy Advisors, found “a range of benefits” due to the current solar policies.
Expanding solar power in Maine is seen as key to meeting renewable energy goals outlined in Gov. Mills’ Climate Action Plan.
“Maine now has one of the most ambitious renewable [energy] requirements in the country,” Burgess said.
Goals include shifting away from the use of fossil fuels and having the state receive 80 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030 and 100 percent by 2050.
“These [solar] projects will help us meet those targets,” he said.
The state is also incentivizing the use of heat pumps, electric vehicles and charging stations. Having enough clean energy to support that infrastructure is very important, Burgess said.