OAKLAND — A patch of purple and yellow wildflowers hides among the knee-high grasses blanketing a generation’s worth of junk.

Six years ago, former transfer station manager Johnny Thomas planted the flowers in an attempt to turn the otherwise unusable hill into a feeding ground for butterflies en route to Mexico for the winter. The Oakland site became one of two Maine Department of Environmental Protection-approved butterfly gardens in the state that sit atop a capped municipal landfill.

Following drops in the world’s monarch populations around 2013, though, the butterflies stopped coming. Thomas then retired in June 2016. Matt Young, a project manager for the DEP’s Municipal Landfill Closure and Remediation Program, said the garden is no longer maintained and “is not super functional.”

But soon, the land is due to generate something again, this time through solar panels that will be installed in the coming year. At its last meeting, the Oakland Town Council unanimously approved a 497,000 kilowatt-hour solar array for the site, which will offset the town’s energy usage and save about $15,000 in the first year and $993,000 over 20 years.

Municipalities across the state have struggled with what to do with their former landfills, most of which were closed and sealed before 2000. The DEP prohibits building structures within 100 feet of the solid waste boundary — and besides, decomposing waste, which oozes methane, is not the most suitable building ground.

“The engineering controls put in place when you close a landfill aren’t built for having (buildings) on them,” Young said. “You’re on top of a large pile of trash that is breaking down, so structurally it’s not going to be the best for a development (like that).”

It does not provide for tillable farmland, either.

Still, towns have worked with the DEP to modify the 100-foot building ban around landfills for a variety of reuses, which the department encourages, Young said. Auburn built two softball fields and a playground.

Then, there are the butterfly gardens in Oakland and Harpswell. While Young said solar arrays are not always popular, there are eight that have been built or permitted since 2015 on landfills in Fairfield, Tremont, Cumberland, Belfast, Portland, South Portland, Waldoboro and Eliot. Waterville approved a large solar project in May, said City Manager Michael Roy, and Damariscotta also has a plan in the works. The practice is allowed, in part, because the concrete foundation of the solar panels is erected above ground.

John Thomas beside one of four flower gardens he planted at the Oakland Transfer Station on Sept. 15, 2013, funded by a $1,000 grant from the Lions Club. The town plans to install a solar array on the capped landfill. Morning Sentinel file photo by David Leaming

WHO BENEFITS?

Among Maine’s municipal landfill solar plans, where the power — and money — goes, though, varies.

Oakland, like the majority of the other towns, will buy the energy generated by the solar panels at a reduced rate for the first several years, according to Sundog Solar Co-Owner Chuck Piper. Sundog Solar acts as a general contractor for the project, which also includes securing a lender and an investor to finance the upfront costs of installing the structure ($770,000) so the town does not have to shell out funds.

The investors can take advantage of federal solar tax credits municipalities cannot access. After six years, Oakland will have the opportunity to buy the system at fair market value, which is estimated to be $385,000, said Piper. Until then, if the solar array makes more power than the town can use, Sundog Solar can sell those credits to other entities. The arrangement is called a power purchase agreement. A handful of companies, including ReVision Energy, broker these deals across the state.

Piper and Dave Savage, Oakland’s code enforcement officer, said the system has been sized to accommodate all of the town’s electric use, except its street lights — which are ineligible for solar credits — and not much else.

“It should offset all of our power consumption, so sewer pumps, the fire station, police station, Town Office, library and we have a couple of buildings for garages over on the lakes that the building and grounds crews use,” Savage said. Residents will not be affected.

Dylan Clark, manager of the Oakland transfer station, stands Wednesday among the flowers of the monarch butterfly garden at the Oakland transfer station. The town plans to install a solar array on the capped landfill.

Waterville and Fairfield, alternatively, have opted to lease acreage on their landfills to Hep Energy USA LLC, headquartered in Germany, and collect revenue from taxes on the equipment. Rather than offering the credits to municipalities to cover their electric bill, Hep Energy sells the solar-generated energy to an outside — and potentially out-of-state — buyer.

Roy, Waterville’s city manager, and Michelle Flewelling, Fairfield’s town manager, said they do not know if Hep Energy has identified a buyer for that energy at this point. Bob Patton, who is the company’s North America representative, did not respond to multiple requests for a comment on the buyer.

Flewelling said when the Fairfield project was initiated in 2017, Hep Energy paid the town $1,000, and each year until the array is constructed, the company will pay the town a flat fee of $2,000. Each town will see $425 per acre annually once the arrays are built, but the tax revenue for both projects is unknown at this point, according to Roy and Flewelling. The Waterville project covers about 56 acres, while the Fairfield effort spans 24.

Roy said Waterville did not enter a power purchase agreement because state laws made the arrangement unappealing at the time. Previously, municipalities could not sell the extra energy produced by solar arrays they owned. As of this year, they can.

“There was a change in the law that just happened that made it much more advantageous and easy for municipalities to get direct use of the energy created from solar installations,” Roy said.

“But in this case, we knew this company was going to come in and build,” noting the promise of tax revenue on land that was otherwise not generating anything was appealing enough for planners and councilors to say yes.

“It seems like, on the surface, it would be better to produce and use your own energy,” Roy said, “but I don’t know how anybody today could say, ‘Yes, it’s going to be this much cheaper — 20 or 30 percent cheaper — I don’t know how anyone could say that today.”

Flewelling said switching to a power purchase agreement “has always been an option and might still be an option” for Fairfield.

In Oakland, councilors said that in addition to the savings they anticipate, they are happy to see the landfill — vacant since it closed in 1995 — put to good use.

“We have this piece of land that’s of no use to anyone as it is, and fortunately we’re able to install solar panels,” Councilor Bob Nutting said. “Over the next 20 years, the savings and electricity (generated) for the town’s buildings and facilities is well worth the investment.

“Particularly, the way we’re doing it if the town chooses to walk away in the first six years, we can. There’s really no downside to it, because the savings begin immediately and then really ramp up in the seventh year.” 

Councilor Don Borman agreed.

“For environmental reasons, it makes sense for the town,” he said. “Hopefully, the people in town will find this to be a good example and they will do whatever they can do individually to recycle, conserve and maybe use different energy sources.”

The panels will be installed on a portion of the landfill closest to the corner of Town Farm Road and Transfer Station Road. Pending approval, Piper said, the project could be expanded if the local school district, Regional School Unit 18, chooses to opt in.

Young, of the DEP, said the solar array “might have some impact” on the butterflies. Still, the wildflowers that have taken root will stay put for any monarchs that do pass by.

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