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.

Many of the proposed projects will have a capacity of just under 5 megawatts, a cap set in the new law. That’s enough to serve up to 500 homes, with thousands of panels spread across 20 acres or so.

Consumer benefits from community solar arrangements vary. In some instances, electric customers buy a share of a project’s power production. In others, customers simply sign up for as long as they like and get a discount on their bills.

ATTRACTING INTEREST

The solar rush doesn’t come as a surprise to Fortunat Mueller, a co-founder at ReVision Energy. Maine’s largest home-grown solar installer has an office in Massachusetts, a national leader in solar installations, so Mueller has seen this trajectory before.

“This is what we promised the Maine Legislature would happen of we got the policy right,” he said of last winter’s solar bill. “We said it would unlock a lot of economic activity. That’s exactly what’s happening.”

Mueller said ReVision has signed leases with a dozen or so landowners and is having “active conversations” with 50 more. They range in size from under 1 megawatt to 5 megawatts. As a rough measure, Mueller said, development costs for a solar farm are $1.5 per watt. So a 5-megawatt farm could cost $7.5 million to build. Beyond equipment, it pays for design, permitting and construction, and the associated jobs.

Project costs also cover lease payments, such as the one ReVision negotiated with the Good Will-Hinckley learning center near Skowhegan. They are expected to total $4,000-$5,000 a  year.

The project will be located on 6 acres of fields near the Kennebec River, according to Rob Moody, Good Will-Hinckley’s president. The field now produces hay for a local farmer, but Moody said there’s plenty of other fields on the school’s 1,000-acre campus.

ReVision already had installed a solar-electric system at the school that’s designed to offset its annual electrical needs. Leasing land for community solar was a natural fit, Moody said, because the campus also is home to the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences, a charter school focused on sustainable forestry, agriculture and energy.

ReVision has built 14 small community solar farms under Maine’s previous rules, so it has on-the-ground capability in Maine. But companies dropping in from out of state sometimes seek local partners to help them get into the game here.

Vaughan Woodruff is the founder and chief executive of Insource Renewables in Pittsfield. He has been working for the past year with an out-of-state developer who plans to lease sites and have Insource build the projects. By Woodruff’s count, two dozen out-of-state companies have some presence in Maine now, looking for site control on key parcels.

“The amount of activity that’s going on is pretty staggering,” Woodruff said.

But Woodruff also sounded a note of caution.

He’s working with a stakeholder group composed of clean-energy, agriculture and other interests that want to make sure community solar ramps up in a responsible way. They and others will make recommendations for the Public Utilities Commission’s rule-making process, to set policy priorities. Those could include incentives for projects to be built on so-called brownfield sites, such as old landfills, rather than productive farmland. Also under discussion is how projects are decommissioned at the end of their useful life, so that pasture land, for instance, can be returned to its former use.

“Otherwise,” Woodruff said, “it’s a gold rush that doesn’t provide long-term benefits for Maine.”

HAY VERSUS SOLAR 

Not surprisingly, many developers are looking at pastureland, since it’s already cleared. They’re pitching farmers with phone calls, emails and letters. This sudden and unexpected barrage has many farmers excited, but also apprehensive.

“We’re a mile from a substation and have been contacted by five solar companies at this point,” said Andy Smith, co-owner of The Milkhouse, an organic dairy farm in Monmouth.

Smith said developers have reached out with personal calls, as well as a form letter that began: “Dear The Milkhouse.”  They are seeking between 15 and 40 acres. And they are offering between $800 and $1,000 an acre, per year. That’s a windfall in central Maine, where landowners typically lease hay fields for $50 an acre.

“This is big business,” Smith said. “There’s a lot of money behind it, if they’re offering those kind of figures to lease land.”

Smith owns and leases nearly 300 acres. He milks 40 cows and raises steers, pigs and chickens. He’s already a strong solar-energy advocate, recently installing an array on his barn with the help of government grants.

But the idea of seeing rows of steel racks and glass panels across productive farmland gives him pause. He hasn’t signed any leases, so far, and like Woodruff, he’s involved in the siting-recommendations group.

A key player representing agriculture is the Maine Farmland Trust. The organization has just compiled a fact sheet to help farmers navigate this  unfamiliar terrain. It covers option agreements, which may give solar companies exclusive rights to enter into a lease contract, as well as suggestions to assure that developers set aside money in an escrow account to decommission the project to certain standards. The bottom-line advice: Hire a lawyer familiar with solar development before you sign anything.

“We support solar energy,” said Ellen Stern Griswold, the trust’s policy and research director. “We just want to make sure it doesn’t result in the loss of important soils or a farmer’s ability to access land, now or in the future.”

Many of these concerns already have been addressed in states and countries where solar energy has a high penetration. The buzz word is agrivoltaics, or dual use, to signify the integration of solar panels and row crops or pasture land.

The University of Massachusetts Crop Research and Education Center is one example. It has a pilot project with panels mounted 7 feet above the ground with row crops underneath, spaced far enough for cows to pass.

In Newfield, New York, sheep are grazing among the 23,000 panels at the 30-acre Millard Hill solar farm. The 7.5 megawatt project can serve more than 600 homes.

“The farmer gets paid and we don’t have to mow the grass,” said Keith Hevenor, communications manager at Boston-based Nexamp, the developer.

Nexamp has signed two leases in Maine and has a couple more pending. But both landowners with leases declined a request by the newspaper to be interviewed. They worry that neighbors will try to kill the projects, Hevenor said, if the locations are revealed before details can be presented during the local permitting process.

This dynamic highlights a broader challenge for community solar: As with nearly any development proposal in Maine, it will face scrutiny and some degree of opposition.

“We hear this a lot,” Hevenor said. “Landowners often get pressure from neighbors and communities when they learn about the plans … Unfortunately, the NIMBY mindset kicks in before residents learn the details of any given project.”

This story was updated at 10 a.m. Oct. 7 to correct the projected per watt cost of development.

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