Source: Advertiser Democrat/ Lewiston Sun Journal
By Leslie H. Dixon

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Town could see financial rewards in energy credits.

OXFORD — Nearly 40 acres of land off Route 26 near the Oxford County Regional Airport may be developed as a solar array – one of the largest solar energy facilities in Maine.

The $8-$9 million project proposed by Dirgo Solar hinges on approval of local, state and federal permits, an agreement with Central Maine Power to connect the solar array to the grid and the approval of a 15-year Credit Enhancement Agreement with the town of Oxford.

If all permits and contracts are approved in the coming months, construction would begin in late summer or early fall. Once completed Dirigo Solar’s proposed 20-year contract with Central Maine Power to sell energy on the wholesale market would kick in.

More importantly to Oxford officials, as host to the project, it is a chance to reduce energy costs to their municipal buildings.

“Basically, this came down to risk management,” said Nicholas Mazuroski, co-founder of the Portland based Dirigo Solar LLC, who has been meeting with selectmen and the Planning Board for the past month to iron out local agreements such as the site plan application approval and the establishment of a Tax Increment Financing district for the CEA.

Tonight, March 14, he goes before the Planning Board again to gain a “designation of completeness” for the preliminary site plan application which will enable him to proceed with the final application approval.

The plan is to develop 38 acres located between Route 26, Number Six Road and the Oxford County Regional Airport, planting some 30,000 panels/modules averaging about about 3 ft in the front and 7 to 8 feet high in the back.. The land is owned by Park 26 LLC ( the site of a proposed business park about a decade ago by the former Growth Council of Oxford Hills.)

According to the plan, the panels will be set at and angle back from Route 26 because of the wetlands, with inverters down the center to connect to the utility poles on Rt 26 side. The property will be seeded and mowed twice a year and trees will be planted along Number Six Road as a screen.

Dirigo Solar LLC is a Maine-based developer of utility-scale solar photovoltaic (PV) power plants. Dirigo officials describe the company’s mission as leveraging technology cost reductions to lower the cost of power for Maine homeowners and businesses, with locally generated, clean energy.

In 2015, Dirigo Solar was awarded a contract by the Maine Public Utilities Commission for up to 75 MWac of distributed solar projects in Central Maine Power and/or Emera Maine service territories. They were one of a number of companies awarded a contract under the PUC’s Community Based Renewables Energy Program.

The project size is enough to power at least 10,000 Maine homes, and would reportedly save Maine ratepayers between $ 3 million and $26 million over the length of the contract, said Dirigo officials.

Mazuroski told selectmen at the March 7 meeting that the Oxford solar project, part of the 75MW (megaWatt) portfolio, will sell 100 percent of its output to Central Maine Power and, in turn, that will offset CMP’s standard offer supply obligations – which currently costs Maine ratepayers more than 9 cents per kilowatt hour. Over the length of the power contract, Mainers who use the standard offer should see a decrease in their energy supply costs, because Dirigo Solar is selling at 38 percent of the current standard offer rate, said Mazuroski.

TIF and other permits

In order to make the project a success, Mazuroski said a number of things must happen.

The company received environmental impact go-aheads from the Army Corp of Engineers, but awaits a permit approval from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, which is expected at the end of March.

The grid agreement with CMP is in the works, as is the local Planning Board approval of the site plan application.

The TIF agreement must be worked out between the town and Dirigo Solar and then approved by town meeting voters.

At this time, the town is looking at a Credit Enhancement Agreement in line with other CEAs offered in town. The proposed Credit Enhancement Agreement would be a 15- year contract which would allow the town to “capture” the first $500,000 in new assessed value. The town then recovers 25 percent of the remaining value over $500,000. The other 75 percent would go to the owner. The actual financial return to the town and company would depend, in part, on whether the property is assessed at the”income” valuation or the “cost:” approach.

Without the the establishment of a TIF district, Mazuroski said the project could not proceed on schedule, at least in the near future.

Tax Increment Financing is a flexible finance tool used by town and cities in Maine to leverage new property taxes generated by a specific project or projects within a defined geographic district. Any portion of the new taxes may be used to finance public or private projects for a defined period of time up to 30 years, according to the Department of Economic and Community Development.

If all permits and agreements are approved, Oxford would join a host of other Maine municipalities that are currently involved in solar energy projects contracts.

So how will this benefit Oxford?

The project is expected to bring in at least 50 temporary jobs during construction and maintaining an estimated five or less permanent jobs once the project is completed.

Local environmental impacts

While the field of solar panels will be set back from Route 26 because of wetlands, there was a question about the glare on traffic going north on Route 26 and to planes landing and taking off at the nearby airport.

It varies every day, Ben Mosher told the Advertiser Democrat when asked what type of airplane traffic comes in and out of the regional airport. While there are some 10-15 airplanes based out of the airport, Mosher, who operates an aviation operations and maintenance business at the airport, said in the summer traffic is higher, an estimated seven or eight flights a day.

The Planning Board has requested, and received, information on the effect of glare and glint on surfaces that are close to airports from BNRG Renewables Ltd in Ireland. The report says solar panels pose “little risk” to airport operations and generate minimum glint and glare.

The one page report states in part, “Glint and glare from reflective surfaces, such as glass buildings, in close proximity to airports pose a challenge for pilots and air traffic control. Glint is the result of the direct reflection of the sun’s light, while glare is the result of diffused light and is a continued source of brightness. However, glint and glare are dependent on several factors including time of day, angle of the reflective surface and the direction of ascent and descent of aircraft. In the case of PV arrays glint and glare are minimal.”

“In spite of the concern over the risk of glint and glare, airport-solar partnerships have been immensely successful,” the report continues. “According to the FAA there are over 30 solar projects operating in proximity of 15 airports in the US1.Many airports in Europe have installed solar PV arrays adjacent to runways and terminals such as Munich, Athens, Berlin and Gatwick international airports. Further, the installation of solar panels have yield immense benefits for airports in terms of increasing their energy efficiency, and aiding cooling the building and surrounding environment by absorbing light. Ultimately, solar PV panels pose little risk to the operations of airports as they generate minimum glint and glare.”

In addition to the question of glare and glint impact on the local airport, the solar panel field project may have impact on the land’s use as a habitat for the Ribbon Snake.

Planning Board members have been told Maine Inland Fisheries and Wildlife is looking into the matter.

According to information from the governmental agency, the Ribbon Snake is one of five species of snakes in Maine with a keel or ridge running along the mid-line of each scale from front to back, making the scales appear rough.

The Ribbon Snake is described as being similar in appearance to a garter snake, found in semi-aquatic habitats and primarily eats amphibians, according to information from the Maine Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. It does not appear on Maine’s endangered species list.

Future Impact?

Years from now will the solar array field become a repository for rusting, unusable solar panels?

No, said Mazuroski when asked what would happen at the end of the 20-year contract with CMP.

Mazuroski said solar panels typically have a usable life of 30-plus years and a maintenance team will service the facility throughout its life.

“After the 20 year contract, the facility will continue to generate power and we’ll seek a new off-take or sell into the wholesale market,” said Mazuroski.

Town Manager Butch Asselin said if Dirigo sold the company, the Credit Enhancement Agreement would be voided.

Worst case scenario, should the project go belly up, Mazuroski said the town would be sitting on panels and inverters that are worth millions of dollars.

Editor’s Note: This story has been edited to reflect corrections with regard to the information originally provided by CMP.