Gaps in two rows of panels in this March 2019 file photo 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 / BDN

The city of Ellsworth is expected to become the biggest buyer for power credits generated by a 40-acre solar panel installation on Mariaville Road, where a New Hampshire-based developer plans to erect nearly 11,000 panels.

The Ellsworth City Council voted 6-1 Monday to OK a deal with SunRaise Investments, based in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, under which the city would buy credits for all the power generated at a 29-acre site on the east side of Mariaville Road. The city expects to sign a contract to also buy credits for power generated at an 11-acre parcel on the west side of Mariaville road, which is part of the same project, at a later date.

The overall agreement with SunRaise to buy credits associated with both parcels is expected to save the city a total of $3.6 million in electricity costs over the 20-year term of the contract. SunRaise expects to begin construction at the two sites next spring and to wrap up in the fall of 2021.

SunRaise gained city approval in June to develop the two privately owned lots into solar farms that together would have a projected capacity of more than 6 million kilowatt hours per year. Last month, the city planning board approved a decommissioning plan for the development, which guarantees that the nearly 11,000 panels will be removed at no cost to the city if the solar farm becomes defunct, according to the Ellsworth American.

The agreement will enable SunRaise to get approval from the state Public Utilities Commission to develop the site, Interim City Manager Glenn Moshier said. And by agreeing to purchase credits for most of the power generated at the site, the city expects to secure a favorable rate on its electricity bill.

The city technically would not be buying power generated directly by the solar farm. It is buying power usage credits associated with the particular project on Mariaville Road, as authorized by the PUC, in order to reduce the costs of electricity it needs to power city buildings, including the public works garage, City Hall, water and wastewater treatment plants and schools. The credit program is part of the state’s efforts to encourage development of renewable sources of electricity generation.

Solar development has picked up in Maine in recent years as a result of state and federal incentives. Gov. Janet Mills had solar panels installed at the governor’s mansion last year and signed an executive order requiring the state to step up investments in energy efficiency, renewable energy and emissions reductions. Also, a change in state law in June 2019 helped make small-scale renewable power installations more financially viable.

On the federal side, a solar tax credit due to expire next year gives purchasers of solar arrays the chance to claim a 30 percent tax credit on the cost of installing panels.

Last year, Ellsworth had been considering partnering with an unidentified developer to establish a solar farm on city property, perhaps at the now-closed landfill site on Stabawl Road. The city decided against this idea because it is more involved to develop solar farms on landfill sites, where panels must be anchored in concrete footings on the ground’s surface rather than mounted on posts that might penetrate through the top layer of the sealed landfill, Moshier said.

The sites on Mariaville Road, which is also Route 180, are not the only parcels in the city that have drawn the interest of solar developers. Next month, the Ellsworth Planning Board is expected to consider two more proposals from private developers — one for a 4,000-square-foot solar array on Christian Ridge Road and another for a 42-acre solar farm on Bucksport Road.

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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....