FRANKLIN — The Planning Board last Thursday unanimously approved two plans for solar energy generation facilities and accepted as complete an application for a third farm.
The approved plans for sites on Hog Bay Road and Cards Crossing were presented by Dale Knapp of Boyle Associates on behalf of applicant Con Edison Clean Energy Business (Con Ed). Approval is pending two conditions required by the board. The meeting was held in person and via Zoom.
A third application for a solar farm presented by Hog Bay Solar 1, LLC, care of Borrego Solar Systems Inc., was unanimously voted as complete by the board, with a public hearing tentatively scheduled for Jan. 7.
Knapp explained that the Con Ed facilities, collectively titled the Franklin Solar Project, are designed as two separate projects on two separate tax lots, but are viewed by the state as one complete project.
The larger of the two sites is a 62.55-acre parcel located on the northern side of the Hog Bay Road, which is also the site of a former gravel pit. It will be operated by Franklin ME 2, LLC and Franklin ME 3, LLC, subsidiaries Con Ed created for the project.
The $14,080,000 project will generate 6.496 megawatts of energy.
The second lot is a 15.55-acre parcel located along the western side of Cards Crossing.
The $5,420,000 project will be operated by Franklin ME 1, LLC and generate 2.5 megawatts of energy.
According to Knapp, both sites of the community solar project will connect to the existing three-phase utility lines along Hog Bay Road.
Franklin residents will have the opportunity to subscribe to the service and save on their electric bill, Knapp explained.
“The power produced by this project must, by law, be consumed by Maine residents. So, it cannot be connected to the grid and shipped by any economic instrument to anywhere else,” he added.
According to the application, project infrastructure to be constructed includes gravel access roads, concrete inverter and switchgear pads, solar arrays and a step-up transformer onsite.
Many community solar facilities have been proposed around Maine following 2019 legislation encouraging development of small, renewable energy projects.
These projects will “allow customers to share the costs and benefits of small solar or other types of renewable energy…participating customers [will] receive kilowatt-hour (kWh) credits on their electric utility bill that reduce the amount of payment owed to the utility,” according to Maine.gov.
Planning Board Chairman Brian Abbott said that the town of Franklin also could sign up for a subscription and that it would most likely be a decision made by the Board of Selectmen.
The Franklin Solar Project is one of seven Con Ed facilities cropping up around the state, Knapp said.
Knapp called the project a “very low-impact way to generate power that we need without requiring any fuel or producing any emissions.” He stated that the project produces “no direct impacts to any regulated natural resources.”
Additionally, the project has been granted all required permitting by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).
The expected lifespan of the proposed project is at least 20 years, with the option to extend its lease in five-year increments after that if the landowner chooses to continue leasing the land for the project.
If the project is ever decommissioned, the site will be “put back into a natural state,” Knapp said.
Knapp said the proposed project will be monitored remotely and there will be limited vehicular traffic. An agricultural-style wooden post fence will be installed to keep the site from looking too industrial.
When addressing tax questions from the board, Knapp said the Legislature will likely take up the issue of how to tax projects of this kind.
“These projects are prepared to pay taxes…their project budget includes an expectation to pay a tangible benefit in the form of taxes or just a straight tangible benefit to the community,” Knapp said.
Following Knapp’s explanation of the project, community members and abutters had the opportunity to ask questions. Many questions were submitted via the chat feature on Zoom.
One question submitted asked about chemicals in the solar panels, which are manufactured in China.
“These are not thin-film panels, so it’s essentially silica and glass,” Knapp answered. “They are not made with chemicals,” he said, adding that the panels are the identical technology that would be used on residential roofing.
Knapp said that per DEP requirements, if the solar project is decommissioned, the panels will have to be disposed of properly.
One viewer asked if it was possible to source the panels from an American manufacturer.
“Right now, the most affordable, most reliable and safest panels are coming from overseas,” Knapp said, noting that one of the few manufacturers in the United States uses chemicals in its panels.
“If the opportunity was there, I’m sure we’d take it, but right now, there are no American manufacturers that are present in the market that make the equipment we need,” he added.
When asked when the decommissioning of the gravel pit and commissioning of the solar project will begin, Knapp said the transition would hopefully begin next March or April.
The unanimous approval of the project is pending two conditions by the board: the addition of reflective lighting to one side of fencing that borders the Downeast Sunrise Trail and the continuation of water sampling on the larger of the two sites for 12 months, or two sampling cycles.
The sampling, a condition of approval for the gravel pit when it was active, will occur to monitor two wells near the town’s water supply.