Crews begin work on a solar panel construction project at exit 109 off Interstate 95 in Augusta. The arrays, which are also to be installed near exit 112, are expected to reduce state electricity costs by at least $7.2 million over the next 20 years. Some city officials and residents have raised concerns about the aesthetics of the panels, which did not require local approval. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

AUGUSTA — Thousands of solar panels that state officials say will bring benefits to taxpayers and the environment are being installed at two exits off Interstate 95 in Augusta even though the projects did not — and will not — undergo review by the Augusta Planning Board and will not be required to comply with city standards for solar installations.

State officials said the two planned solar farms in the grassy middle areas of exits 109 and 112 do not require local review or approval because they are within the right of way of Interstate 95.

A rendering shows where solar arrays are to be installed near exits 109 and 112 of Interstate 95 in Augusta. Courtesy Maine Department of Transportation

The interstate is part of the federal transportation system, which requires uniformity for the traveling public, according to a spokesman for the Maine Department of Transportation. Projects occurring within its right of way are exempt from complying with whatever local regulations and zoning requirements municipalities it passes through may have.

City officials acknowledge the state project does not require local review or have to meet city standards for solar projects, which require such projects be screened from public view, due to its location within the interstate right of way. They wish the state had submitted plans for the projects for review by the Planning Board, as the state did with another solar farm development planned at the Augusta State Airport, which the board approved after changes were made to address local concerns.

“Neither the city nor the Planning Board had any input on these arrays, which is unfortunate,” said Ward 3 City Councilor Mike Michaud, whose ward includes the area around exit 112, where the MDOT plans to have 1,248 solar panels installed in the middle of the interchange. I wish they would have undergone some review and not just the state taking advantage of the fact they own the property.

“We already have, on Route 3 and Route 27, coming in to Augusta, (privately developed) solar panels everywhere and now the entrances to Augusta off the interstate will have them. Augusta is probably going to be coined the solar panel capital of Maine. I have a lot of concerns for my constituents, for the aesthetics of the city of Augusta and just all around.”


Paul Merrill, public information officer for MDOT, said the uniformity required for the interstate could not occur if every municipality through which it passes could affect its use and require the state to comply with certain rules or requirements. He said federal policy encourages installations of solar panels in the right of ways along interstates.

The arrays at the exits in Augusta are to be surrounded by 7-foot chain-link fencing and have, planted among the panels, pollinator-friendly plant species, according to Merrill. They are also to be visible to passing motorists, especially those traveling northbound.

“Vehicles traveling on the interstate will see a field of solar panels on racking systems amongst low-level vegetation,” Merrill said. “There are systems in Massachusetts, Maryland, Oregon, Florida and Georgia within the interstate rights of ways that are similar to what we will have in Maine.”

State officials note the two solar projects on the interstate and the one planned for the Augusta State Airport site will send clean energy to the existing Central Maine Power Co. grid, for which the state will receive credits and renewable energy certificates through net energy billing credit agreements.

They estimate the projects will reduce state electricity costs by at least $7.2 million over the next 20 years. Once online, they will generate about 8.5 megawatts of solar energy, enough to power about 1,000 homes, and are expected to reduce state carbon emissions by up to 2,000 metric tons annually.

“Once online, these arrays will help reduce costs for taxpayers and reduce emissions from state power consumption, in support of Gov. Mills’ direction for state government to lead by example in renewable energy and sustainability,” Kirsten Figueroa, commissioner of the Maine Department of Administrative and Financial Services, said in a statement released to the news media.


The solar panels will be owned and operated by Cenergy Power, which was selected through a competitive bidding process to build and run the system and sell the power it produces to the state. Cenergy is responsible for the cost of developing, building, operating, maintaining and decommissioning the solar project, and it is also paying to lease the land from MDOT.

Work is underway now on installing the 5,564 panels at exit 109. Work at exit 112 will follow.

Crews begin work on a solar panel construction project at exit 109, between Western Avenue, Interstate 95 and an on-ramp in Augusta. The arrays, which are also to be installed near exit 112, are expected to reduce state electricity costs by at least $7.2 million over the next 20 years. Some city officials and residents have raised concerns over the aesthetics of the panels, which did not require local approval. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Mayor Mark O’Brien acknowledged at the Sept. 1 meeting of the Augusta City Council that “there is a lot of comment and angst being expressed about the solar panels that are being installed in the cloverleafs of Augusta.”

“There have been a lot of questions about whether the city was involved in that,” he said. “The answer to that is no. It hasn’t come to the City Council. Nor will it be coming to the Planning Board. That’s a project that is moving full speed ahead. And that’s all to do with the state.”

In 2019, the state had large swaths of trees cleared from the interstate interchanges in Augusta, where the solar panels are now being installed. At the time, officials said the trees were removed for multiple reasons, including reducing the deer and other wildlife near the interstate, increasing visibility for drivers, allowing more sunlight to melt snow and ice in the roadway and eliminating the possibility of trees or branches falling onto the roadway.

Merrill said none of the solar infrastructure being installed now will create significant visibility obstacles for drivers. He also said the panels will be outside what officials call “clear zone limits” adjacent to the interstate, which he said means “it would take a lot for a vehicle leaving the roadway to hit the panels.”


Merrill noted the trees were not cleared — in 2019 — to make way for the solar project now underway.

Ward 1 Councilor Linda Conti, whose ward includes the exit 109 area, said she is torn on the issue because she is in favor of solar energy, but believes the panels should be buffered from public view and wishes local residents would have had a chance to provide input on the projects.

“I’m pro-solar, but I can understand people are upset that they have had no chance for input,” Conti said. “I don’t know what we can do about it. We’ve told people to call their state legislators.”

Matt Nazar, the longtime development director for the city, said he could not recall another construction project proposed within the right of way to a road in Augusta. He said other construction projects on state property in Augusta, not within the right of way to the interstate, have undergone review by the Planning Board.

Merrill said for projects on state property but not within an interstate right of way, the state complies with zoning ordinances of municipalities — including Augusta — that have certified comprehensive plans. That is why the state sought approval of the solar project at the Augusta State Airport.

In 2021, the city adopted regulations requiring large solar projects be shielded form public view, rules developed while a moratorium was put in place to hold off new, large solar developments after residents expressed concerns about the aesthetics of some privately developed projects.

Nazar said he has not reviewed plans for the state’s project and could not say whether the project would meet the city’s standards for solar developments.

Those standards require plantings along fence lines surrounding such projects to provide visual buffers.

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