Solar panel farms, including this 4.875-megawatt installation on Washburn Street, are becoming more frequent throughout Aroostook County as developers look to provide discounts to electric customers without destroying land. Credit: Melissa Lizotte / Aroostook Republican

CARIBOU, Maine — With large swaths of open land and rural communities struggling to meet increased electric costs, developers see Aroostook County as a prime destination for solar panel sites.

Versant Power is studying 60 proposed solar projects for potential impact to its power grid area, which includes Aroostook and parts of northern Penobscot and Washington counties. 

These arrays are popping up at a time when legislators and residents across Maine are realizing their potential impact on the power grid and wondering just how much electric savings they will produce.

There are nearly 8,000 solar installations throughout Maine, with the majority on residential rooftops. Those installations produce 420 megawatts of power, according to statewide data.

Although Aroostook only has 1 percent of them and produces just 8.75 megawatts of power, municipalities are quickly embracing solar arrays as potential cost savers for commercial businesses and residents.

Aroostook’s solar power is fed into the New Brunswick Power Grid through Versant Maine Public District, rather than to the New England Power Grid. Maine Public District in the north and Bangor Hydro District in the south, which comprise Versant Power in Maine, are not connected, so the power generated in Aroostook cannot go to Bangor, although recent legislation would make it possible to connect the two areas.

Aroostook town officials, who say they have had strong relationships with solar companies, are impressed with their commitment to being good stewards of the land.

Until this year, Caribou only had solar arrays on private property, including a 25-acre installation the Caribou Utilities District owns and maintains, and smaller arrays at a local farm and a senior apartment complex.

Now the city is home to a 20-acre solar farm that provides energy credits to seven commercial subscribers in and around Caribou and is the first that Versant Power assisted in developing. Three other companies — one international and two based in the United States — are close to constructing solar arrays of various sizes throughout Caribou, a city of a little more than 80 square miles.

Caribou Planning Board recently approved a six-unit solar garden that will sit on 3.5 acres of land near Van Buren Road. The .70 megawatts of panels will rotate with the sun and stand 35 feet high.

The St. Paul, Minnesota-based Novel Energy Solutions, which is developing that garden, is building a dozen other installations in Fort Fairfield, Westfield, Ashland, Limestone, Frenchville, Madawaska, Mapleton and Patten.

Novel’s solar installations range from five to 40 acres, according to sales manager Connor McCarthy. Given Aroostook’s open land, he said the company sees the potential to develop around 40 more projects in the next three years.

Founded by sixth-generation cattle farmers, Novel recently branched out into Maine due to its interest in working with farmers and preserving rather than tying up farmland, McCarthy said.

Novel’s willingness to collaborate with Maine’s environmental regulations and build the panels in tune with the land are reasons why the Caribou Planning Board approved the proposal, Caribou Code Enforcement Officer Ken Murchison said.

With Aroostook known for its scenic views of open fields, residents would be justified in having concerns about solar panels blocking the landscape, Murchison said. But so far only a few residents have voiced them. They later rescinded them after realizing that their properties are not as close to the solar panels as they thought.

That is also good news for the regions near the Aroostook River, which city officials want to redevelop for commercial and residential use. Murchison said that while preparing for construction of a 25-acre solar farm near the river, ENGIE, an international company with Houston headquarters, chose a site that does not disrupt riverfront views.

Solar developers more familiar to Aroostook’s municipalities are building similar projects while touting what they see as significant savings for electric customers.

During a March city council meeting, Shawn Pelletier, one of the investors with Caribou Solar Power and Nordic Sun Energy, said that altogether both groups have a dozen projects in development in Aroostook that target commercial subscribers. Two in Presque Isle and one in Mapleton are slated for construction this summer.

Like Novel, Caribou Solar and Nordic have said that subscribers save around 10 to 15 percent on their monthly electric bills, which come from solar energy credits based on how much of a project their subscription includes. The companies ask potential subscribers to sign on months before projects go online.

But though Pelletier encouraged city officials to act quickly to subscribe to a solar project, he suggested the residential customers use more caution. He used the example of his father signing up as a solar farm subscriber, only to find out that the project was being built in southern Maine, outside the local electric grid.

“I would encourage everyone to sign up, but I would ask questions like ‘When will [the project] be built?’ and ‘Where’s your solar farm?'” Pelletier said. “Make sure it’s a real project. Because if you sign up, the real projects are going to get developed and then you’ll miss out.”

Maine Public Advocate Bill Harwood had similar advice for residential subscribers.

Even if developers have a legitimate project in the works, they might not take into account how much electricity customers regularly use, he said.

“Whenever I hear a developer say ’15-percent guaranteed savings,’ the word ‘guaranteed’ makes me nervous,” Harwood said. “I always use the example of ‘the retired golfer’ who lives in Florida every winter. If his [solar energy] credits are more than he uses for his home in Maine, the credits are useless.”

Reporter David DiMinno contributed to this report.

Correction: A previous version of this story reported Caribou’s size incorrectly. It is a little more than 80 square miles.