This July 26, 2019, file photo shows an array of solar panels glisten in the sun outside Cannon Ball, N.D., located on the north side of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. A New Hampshire company has proposed a solar array in Belfast. Credit: Dave Kolpack | AP

BELFAST, Maine — A New Hampshire-based development company hopes to turn 20 acres of hayfield here into a solar array that could generate enough electricity to power roughly 1,400 households.

The proposed 5-megawatt community solar farm, located at 17 Perkins Road, is possible because of new state laws designed to promote clean energy projects, said Pat Jackson of SunRaise Investments of Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

“It’s all going to be community solar, which is exciting,” he said. “The great thing about community solar is that it provides a framework so that any and all electricity customers can participate.”

This project, and others like it, mark a sea change in the state’s approach to solar energy. In 2019, Maine ranked 43rd in the country for its solar capacity and generated less than 1 percent of its energy from solar sources. That same year, the Maine Legislature passed laws that aimed to add 375 megawatts of generated solar power to the state, among other goals, and allowed for renewable energy developers to enter 20-year contracts to sell the energy with Central Maine Power Co. or Emera Maine, according to an article published in MaineBiz.

The new laws have been welcomed by many renewable energy proponents, including Jackson.

“Maine has fallen very behind. We are by far the least solar in New England,” he said. “However, this program is changing that, so Maine will quickly leap ahead of New Hampshire and Vermont.”

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The Perkins Road project has received approval from the Belfast Planning Board and construction could begin as early as this fall — but more realistically, it would start next spring, according to Jackson, who lives in Yarmouth. He said it would take about four months to build.

SunRaise Investments would sell the energy generated in Belfast to CMP customers at a discount, according to Jackson. Some of the details of the project are still being ironed out, he said, including whether customers will be commercial, residential or a mix of the two.

“The details are still to be determined, but there will be commercial tax revenue for 20-plus years,” Jackson said.

He and others from SunRaise also are waiting to learn if the project will be awarded clean energy credits by the Maine Public Utilities Commission. Jackson said that he is hopeful that it will be selected because he believes the project incorporates a lot of the criteria the state is seeking.

“Having studies be complete and our permits be complete puts us in a good position,” he said. “It’s also on previously disturbed land, does not remove more than 10 acres of trees and complements agricultural use. Those are the big ones.”

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SunRaise Investments would lease the site from landowners Matthew Holmes and Meredith Holmes in order to install the 12-foot-wide solar panels over a portion of the 50-acre hayfield.

“The majority of [the land] would remain in hay production, with the minority in the solar project,” Jackson said. “It’s a good way to keep the farm alive and provide stable revenues to the landowner as the project’s host.”

Because the state’s solar program specifies a 20-year set term, the company is planning for that to be the lifespan of the project — but it may not need to be that short, Jackson said. If there is no new avenue to sell the electricity after 20 years, the company will decommission the project. But if there is, the solar array could last as long as 30 or 35 years.

“We essentially expect 20 years and hope for more,” he said.

The company is hoping it will be a good match for Belfast, where city officials have worked over the past few years to offset more than 90 percent of its municipal electrical costs with several solar arrays.

“This is great that we’re seeing this happen in the private sector as well,” Thomas Kitteridge, Belfast Economic Development Director, said this week.

Although the solar array would be located on Perkins Road close to the proposed Nordic Aquafarms land-based salmon project, which has been controversial in the midcoast city, there is no affiliation between the two, Jackson said.

“This is a very low-impact development. It doesn’t have any noise or smell or pollution or, really, disruption,” he said. “That’s the benefit of solar projects. They’re not tall. They’re not loud. They’re not bright. They don’t move. They’re pretty simple, passive developments.”