Gaps in two rows of panels show yet more panels at a solar farm that was installed in late 2018 at a former landfill site next to the local Tremont town office. Credit: Bill Trotter

If you want an example of how attitudes in Maine toward environmental stewardship have changed over the past 30 years, you might not have to go any further than your local landfill.

Since the late 1980s, when the state took action to shut them down, the sites where hill-sized mounds of household trash and other discarded items leached pollution into the ground now have been capped off and closed. And in the past few years, many have been topped off with solar panels that generate electricity from sunlight, with more expected in the coming years.

Because of their lack of trees and exposure to the sun, landfills are well suited for hosting solar arrays, officials have pointed out. And because of state rules about how closed landfills must be maintained, they generally are off limits to other, more physically substantial kinds of development.

Plus, a variety of economic and regulatory changes in recent years have made solar development more attractive to municipalities, which increasingly are looking for ways to reduce the use of fossil fuels and save on electricity costs. Not only has the price of solar panels plummeted in the past 10 years but the government has offered incentives for developing solar power sites.

Since being sworn in as Maine’s governor in January, Janet Mills has taken a more favorable approach than her predecessor, Paul LePage, toward renewable energy projects. While LePage consistently opposed policies that promoted solar and wind power development, last month Mills had solar panels installed at the governor’s mansion and signed an executive order requiring the state to step up investing in energy efficiency, renewable energy and emissions reductions.

David Cole, city manager for Ellsworth, said in October that a change in state law this past June, which is aimed at making small-scale renewable power installations more financially viable, is the main reason why the city is considering whether to host a solar array on city property. The potential development site in Ellsworth that has gotten the most attention so far is the closed landfill on Stabawl Road, though Cole has said the city is open to other possible locations.

And, on the federal side, Congress extended a solar tax credit that was due to expire in 2016 until 2021, which means purchasers of solar arrays have until then to claim a 30 percent tax credit on the cost of installing panels.

But for the towns looking at solar investments, it’s not just lower installation costs that are appealing. Many have agreements with solar developers that enable the towns to pay below-market rates for power produced on their properties, saving them on ongoing electricity costs.

In the Mount Desert Island town of Tremont, where roughly 500 solar panels were erected in late 2018 at the closed municipal landfill, the town has seen its electrical costs go down.

Chris Saunders, Tremont’s town manager, said that the town paid roughly $2,000 less for electricity usage at the town office from July through October of 2019 than it did for the same four-month period the prior year, before the solar installation was connected to the grid. The town office, which is located right next to the array, represents one of the eight municipal electric meters in Tremont — the town garage and its K-8 school are others — that benefit from the reduced rate of 12.5 cents per kilowatt hour, he said.

Prior to the solar facility coming online, the town was paying on average between 17 and 18 cents per kilowatt hour.

The savings are “great,” he said. The fact that the town is benefiting from development on what otherwise would be “pretty useless land” is even better.

“The array has definitely reduced our electricity costs,” he said.

The arrangement is working so well, he added, that a town-appointed committee is looking into whether Tremont should consider other solar projects, either on the roofs of some municipal buildings or by expanding the array at the closed landfill.

Bar Harbor, Belfast, Boothbay, Bucksport, Camden, Lincolnville, South Portland, Stockton Springs, Waldoboro, Waterville and Whitefield are among other cities and towns in Maine that now have solar facilities on municipal property. In addition Ellsworth, Bangor, Dover-Foxcroft, Falmouth, Lamoine are considering similar projects, with all but Bangor considering former municipal landfill sites for development.

Other commercial-scale solar farms have been developed or proposed on private lands in Maine. In February, the Maine Public Utilities Commission approved a power-purchase project for Three Rivers Solar, a yet-to-be developed 100-megawatt solar farm planned for Township 16 in northeastern Hancock County.

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Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....