By Tux TurkelStaff Writer
Now that friendly policies are in place, developers are jockeying for access to Maine's grid to build community solar projects.
Maine this fall is in the midst of a land rush, not for gold but for sunshine.
A recent law encouraging large solar projects, combined with the aggressive clean-energy goals of Gov. Janet Mills, have energy companies and developers from across the country trying to lock down prime sites for dozens of multi-million dollar community solar farms. The most appealing sites are on flat ground, with a southern exposure near high-voltage power lines and substations.
What’s driving the activity now is a major rewrite of community solar rules by the last Legislature, which removed random, restrictive limits that, for instance, limited membership to fewer than 10 customers.
Suddenly, Maine is on the radar of the national solar industry. It’s joining other states like Massachusetts, which has had policies encouraging community solar since 2008.
And like an old-time gold rush, prospectors are staking their claims, studying circuit maps and property tax records to zero in on the most promising sites. The projects that actually get built will have to overcome many obstacles, including potential resistance from neighbors and pending guidelines aimed at protecting Maine’s valuable crop and pasture land.
“The leadership shown by Gov. Mills and the passage of (new solar rules) was ultimately the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said Salar Naini, vice president of business development at TurningPoint Energy, a Denver-based clean-energy development and investment firm. “With market access and an attractive value proposition now possible for future customers, Maine now ranks at the top of markets we are pursuing in the U.S.”
All summer, developers such as TurningPoint have been cold-calling landowners, sending emails and letters, and working with local partners to gain a foothold. TurningPoint and most others won’t talk about where in Maine they are pursuing sites. They don’t want to tip their hand to competitors or get the locals worked up about something big in their backyards.
But there are clues. Solar farms need to be within a mile or so of major power lines or substations, so the power can be loaded onto the grid without building more transmission lines. The latest list of projects vying for connections to Central Maine Power’s distribution system shows 85 proposed solar farms.
Developer names aren’t included on the list, but communities and substations are. They span the service area, but tend to be concentrated in central and western Maine.
Many of these projects will fail to launch, however, for reasons that include limited capacity on existing connections to the grid. That’s why developers are trying to claim an early spot in line.
State regulators are still drafting rules for community solar. Because permitting and construction take time, most new farms won’t be built until 2021 or beyond. But the rush is on now, with the aim of signing 20-25 year leases with landowners.
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