A global clean-energy investment company is teaming up with a Falmouth-based solar development firm on plans to build a $100 million trio of utility-scale solar electric projects in Maine.

The projects are part of a suite of seven large solar farms being developed in New England by D.E. Shaw Renewable Investments and North Light Energy. The three Maine projects would be built in Livermore Falls, Lewiston and Garfield Plantation, near Ashland.

The New England projects would have a total capacity of 201 megawatts, enough energy to power 20,000 average homes. In Maine, Garfield would be rated at 30 megawatts, Lewiston at 20 megawatts and Livermore Falls at 40 megawatts. Construction could begin as early as 2021.

The Livermore Falls project would have an added benefit. Located next to the financially challenged ReEnergy biomass power plant, it could boost the survival chances of one of the state’s remaining generators that turns low-grade wood into electricity. It also would be the first time a solar farm has been tied into a biomass plant, according to North Light Energy.

A 40-megawatt solar farm near the Androscoggin River in Livermore Falls would tie into the adjacent ReEnergy biomass power plant, as shown on this preliminary site plan. Panel arrays are shown in blue. The solar farm is being proposed by D.E. Shaw Renewable Investments and North Light Energy and is part of a $100 million trio of proposed solar projects in Maine. Image courtesy of DESRI/North Light Energy

The ReEnergy plant is considered essential to hundreds of western Maine loggers and truckers, representatives of the forest products industry and area lawmakers say. They have sent the Maine Public Utilities Commission multiple letters of support for the solar project.

The Maine projects are among several vying for selection through a procurement process being conducted by the PUC. The latest proposal offers further proof of Maine’s growing appeal as a location for solar energy farms.

The agency has been evaluating proposals to help boost the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard, which requires utilities to buy a certain share of their power from clean-energy generators. A recent law directs the PUC to conduct two competitive bidding processes and pick projects that equal 14 percent of the state’s retail electricity sales. The first selection process is expected to wrap up in late September; the second could happen this winter.

Details about the bidders, including names and the proposed price of power, are kept confidential by the PUC until winners are chosen. But public documents show that at least one large wind power project has applied. Clearway Energy, a national solar and wind developer, is proposing a giant wind farm in southern Aroostook County.

The PUC selection processes stem from laws passed in 2019 aimed at increasing the state’s share of energy from renewable sources from 40 percent today to a very aggressive 80 percent by 2030, with a goal of 100 renewable energy by 2050.

This policy has caught the eye of solar developers. Solar farms that feature tens of thousands of panels feeding power into the state’s electric grid will be key to meeting the state’s ambitious targets, said Aaron Svedlow, North Light Energy’s founder.

“There’s a real opportunity for Maine to become a leader in renewable energy in the region,” he said, “especially by focusing on large-scale commercial projects.”

SOLAR PROJECTS ABOUND

The D.E. Shaw projects are the latest in what has become a succession of announcements this summer of large-scale solar energy ventures in Maine.

In early August, Irish energy company BNRG Renewables announced a partnership with Dirigo Solar LLC in Portland to develop large-scale projects in eight communities over the next year, an enterprise that has attracted roughly $100 million in private capital investment. They said the venture is the first phase of three large solar endeavors planned to come online by 2024. Taken together, they could bring $500 million in capital spending to Maine over the next few years, along with thousands of jobs during the construction period, BNRG said.

Also this month, the Boston-based solar energy developer Nexamp began a marketing campaign offering residents and small businesses a 15 percent credit on their electric bills if they subscribe to proposed solar projects in Gorham, Auburn and Rumford, the first example in Maine of a new way to invest in community solar projects.

In June, Portland-based MaineHealth said it has reached agreements to purchase power from three solar electric developers in a plan that’s expected to cut the health care system’s annual electric bill by at least $1 million while encouraging the growth of clean-energy generation in Maine.

The 20-year agreements will help support 10 proposed solar farms located from Benton to Saco that would generate enough electricity to equal half the power used by MaineHealth properties.

The latest solar proposals come from veterans of the clean energy industry.

The D.E. Shaw group is a global investment and technology development firm that backed Deepwater Wind off Rhode Island, the first offshore wind farm in the United States. It also was an investor in First Wind, the now-defunct developer of major wind farms operating in Maine.

Svedlow, a former Falmouth town councilor, has 15 years of national experience developing solar and wind projects, and previously was with NextEra Energy Resources and Ranger Solar.

The Livermore Falls solar farm would connect to the electric grid through ReEnergy’s substation. That would allow the 39-megawatt biomass generator to complement solar generation at night and on stormy days, for instance.

Solar co-location could be a lifeline for ReEnergy. Standalone wood-fired power plants have been closing in part because their aging technology can’t compete with wholesale electric prices in New England. In recent years, the state has offered controversial subsidies in an attempt to prop up some of the plants.

The Lewiston project is off Sabattus Street on farmland and previously developed property. Output from both projects would go to Central Maine Power customers.

The Garfield Plantation project is next to a shuttered biomass plant previously run by ReEnergy. It would provide power for Aroostook County.

The other New England projects include one in Claremont, New Hampshire, and three near Hartford, Connecticut.

ECONOMIC BENEFITS

The three Maine projects are expected to provide at least 130 construction jobs. Roughly $100 million will be spent on construction, equipment, taxes and land payments, Svedlow said.

The PUC selection process requires that while 70 percent of the scoring revolves around price, 30 percent is linked to economic benefits such as taxes and payments to host communities. Notably, D.E. Shaw/North Light Energy is pledging $4.2 million for job programs to help train the state’s workforce in engineering and construction.

That support is welcome news to Marty Grohman, a former state lawmaker who’s currently executive director of the Environmental and Energy Technology Council of Maine, known as E2Tech. Grohman said his members report shortages of qualified electricians and technicians, which is why the Legislature asked the PUC to also consider employment potential.

“We want a lasting industry,” Grohman said.

For solar to become a sustainable industry in Maine, Grohman said, state government needs to maintain consistent, long-term policies that will continue to attract private investment and to tweak rules, such as siting and land use, as needed.

“It’s a spreadsheet-driven business,” he said about clean energy. “What you want are concrete numbers you can build your assumptions around.”

The growing list of developers announcing projects, even before the PUC selection process wraps up, may be a sign that they want to build a sense of momentum, according to Dan Burgess, director of the Governor’s Energy Office.

“It’s exciting to see that these companies want to do business in Maine,” he said.

It’s also timely during the pandemic that this selection process already is under way, Burgess said, and not waiting for some potential government incentives when the Legislature reconvenes next year.

“This is an opportunity not just to meet clean energy goals, but to help support the economy,” he said.

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