RICHMOND — Snow covers the open field these days at 176 Alexander Reed Road, but within months that stretch of road is expected to have a new look.

Last week, the Richmond Planning Board gave final approval to Turning Point Energy for a solar project expected to generate 5 megawatts of electricity when it goes online in 2021.

The project is the latest for Turning Point Energy and the latest to be approved in central Maine as companies jockey for position in the solar market, but not all projects approved at the local level are likely to reach the point where they are generating electricity.

Thanks to L.D. 1711, state net metering legislation passed in 2019, solar companies are seeking to capitalize on the ability to sell solar power to the grid in Maine and seeking approval for projects across the region.

In recent months, project applications from a number of companies have been approved in Gardiner, Randolph and Augusta, among others.

Turning Point’s Richmond project is a “community solar project,” which allows electric customers to sign up for solar power without having to install solar panels on their property.

Salar Naini, vice president of business development with Turning Point Energy, runs its U.S. business development efforts. To date, Turning Point, a clean energy development advisory and investment company, has undertaken more than $2.5 billion worth of projects that represent about 1.1 gigawatts of solar power plants in operation. One gigawatt could power up to 300,000 houses.

“The focus for us specifically is the solar sector,” Naini said.

Since the net metering law passed in 2019, the company has about a dozen projects in Maine, representing about 60 megawatts of solar projects in various stages of development, according to Naini. None has come online yet, but the first set is expected to come online in the second half of 2021.

Arriving at those sites takes work. Naini said company officials consider a range of attributes in identifying prospective sites for solar arrays.

“You always first have to have a landowner willing and able to either lease or sell their property for a solar project,” he said.

Desirable sites are flat, close to electric distribution lines to allow connection to the grid and offer few environmental challenges, such as wetlands or streams.

They also have to pass local regulatory review, usually from a municipal planning board.

Aside from that, they also have to be able to connect to the electric grid, and not all projects currently approved or seeking approval at the municipal level are anticipated to come on line. State law caps community solar projects at 400 megawatts, but the ability to hook into the power grid is another limiting factor.

Keith Radonis, manager of transmission and interconnection services at Central Maine Power Co., said as of Friday, the company had received 613 interconnection applications dating to mid-2018.

“Those are your smaller-scale distribution level projects that you hear folks refer to as the ‘solar gold rush,'” Radonis said.

Once those applications are made to CMP, they undergo an engineering review to determine where they would connect to the electric system, whether the grid can handle that increase in generation and if there is enough electric load on the system.

Early on, Radonis said, few connections were requested and they could be done with minimal upgrades. But as more applications have been submitted and approved, the grid is becoming saturated and more upgrades are anticipated as applications continue to be filed with the utility company.

The cost of those upgrades, borne by the solar developer and paid in advance, can determine whether a project is financially feasible to be completed, he said.

If it is, CMP starts work on the upgrades as the solar arrays are being installed to accept the generation, and the utility charges a fee back to the solar operator for ongoing operation and maintenance, Radonis said.

In Richmond, meanwhile, the next step is for town officials to figure out what the project will mean for the town’s tax base if it comes online.

Town Manager Adam Garland said because solar projects are so new in Maine, no one knows how to assess them for taxation.

“We’re not the only ones to have to figure this out,” Garland said. “We can all be on the bandwagon that solar, renewable energy has a positive environmental impact, but when it comes to the dollars and cents piece of it, it’s difficult to figure that out right now.”

For Naini and Turning Point, the focus is on bringing solar power online.

“Our goal, ultimately, with these projects is to enable residents, businesses and organizations to get all the benefits of solar,” Naini said. “From our view,  there’s lots of benefits for these projects: You can save money on your electricity bills, these projects create jobs, they create tax revenue, economic growth opportunities, and also support the state and reaching its ambitious, renewable energy goals.”

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