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Expanding Maine's community solar programs

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Community solar programs have grown in popularity throughout Maine. One of the newest community solar farms in Hermon has more than 14,000 solar panels.

HERMON, Maine — Governor Janet Mills has proclaimed the week of September 20 to 24 'Clean Energy Week.'

Clean Energy Week focuses on recognizing the efforts to develop clean and renewable energy, offset the use of imported fossil fuels, and build a thriving economy with good-paying jobs across Maine.

"Community solar gives a group of people an opportunity to pull their resources or to come together to share in the output of a larger solar project," said Ted Rioux.

Ted Rioux works for Ampion Renewable Energy, a company that helps give access to renewable energy through solar panels.

Community solar programs have grown in popularity throughout the state. One of the newest community solar farms in Hermon has more than 14,000 solar panels.

"It's a five-megawatt solar farm. It produces five megawatts AC power and sends it out to the grid," said Andrew Zimmerman, project manager for Cianbro.

Zimmerman said the project will be completed in November. Thirty to forty Cianbro workers and other sub-contractors have been working on this new Hermon solar community farm. He said Cianbro takes great pride in being part of Maine's green movement.

Cianbro is also developing an identical project in Pittsfield.

Rioux explained the project in Hermon is under the net energy billing program and is for residential consumers and small businesses. The consumer subscribes and people behind the project said, for an average-sized home or small business, your bill will be about 15% less than you're paying now. 

In 2019, LD1711 expanded the program and set the capacity of solar community projects to five megawatts, which produces enough energy to electrify 600 to 700 Maine homes explains Rioux.

"It has encouraged developers and investors to come to the state of Maine to construct these community solar farms on behalf of electricity users," said Rioux.

Basically how it works is people invest in an offsite solar project and get utility bill discounts.

"Well these discount rates, off of the utility standard offer rates are fixed. So regardless of how the retail energy price changes, consumers are always paying a fixed and guaranteed discount rate off of these standard offer rates, which are set by the utilities," said Rioux.

Available for homeowners, renters, and small business owners.

The Maine Public Utilities Commission wants to remind folks to always check on their website or give them a call to make sure the solar company that is marketing to you is legitimate and they have registered with the PUC. Here's a list of approved solar energy companies by the PUC.

Susan Faloon works for the PUC, she said there are 231 registered Distributed Generation (DG), Net Energy Billing (NEB), project sponsors and related entities in Maine.

The newest community solar farm in Hermon is registered and approved by the PUC.

"These are good programs, and they help Mainers. They are going to reduce our energy costs and they are going to contribute in a very positive way to economic growth in the state," said Rioux.

In 2019, Maine legislators passed a law to encourage the development of community solar and other renewable projects. One of the programs established in the shared energy billing program, they allow customers who are not in a position to have their own rooftop projects to still participate in renewable energy projects.

"So under the program, the consumer can make an arrangement to share in or subscribe to a portion of that community solar project," said Faloon. "The consumers' portion of the output of the project is reflected as a kilowatt-hour credit on their monthly electric bill."

"They can benefit from the savings that result from solar energy and they can also benefit from participating in a program that does help lower our carbon emissions," said Rioux.

Faloon explained that if projects are going to market to customers, then they are required to register with the Public Utilities Commission. She said entities marketing projects to customers must provide them with a Net Energy Billing disclosure form.

"Consumers are always paying a fixed and guaranteed discount rate off of these standard offer rates that are set by the utilities," said Rioux.

Representative Seth Berry of Bowdoinham (D) is Maine's house chair of the legislature's joint committee on Energy, Utilities, and Technology.

Berry said community solar has caused a boost in job creations in Maine.

"This year we said, solar prices are coming down, these jobs are being created and in fact we are seeing folks coming from out of state to fill those needs, that's all wonderful, but with the prices coming down we think that we can actually reduce the incentives and still see solar building, essentially have more bang for our solar buck!" said Berry.

Berry says solar power will save you money. "These community solar farms are putting clean energy to the grid, they are reducing peoples bills and they are creating jobs," asid Berry. "One thing people have to understand better is that it's not the utility that is offering you these savings, Central Maine Power or Versant power customers are eligible.

He says this is a competitive market and very robust making this clean energy available to Mainers. He does point three challenges: jobs, cost, and land use.

"We want to make sure the Maine workforce is able to build most of the solar farms that are going up, and if we go too quickly that workforce will not be there to meet the need and those workers will go out of state," said Berry.

For cost concerns, Berry says legislators have to keep balancing costs as markets shift. "What you are using is not just the solar supply, you are also using the grid itself…so if we overdue that, that can have costs to other customers, that's why we need to make sure that we are thoughtful of how we balance costs within our system."

 "If we do it right, solar will be a big part of our clean energy future," said Berry.

"We have to make sure that the customers of these utilities are not shouldering more of the burden than necessary, make sure that none of the players whether t's the utilities or the developers are making excessive profits," Berry said.

"These are good programs, and they help Mainers, and they will reduce our energy costs and they are going to contribute in a very positive way to economic growth in the state," said Rioux.

Rioux is in the process of finding new and interested subscribers to the new community solar farm in Hermon. Here's a link with more information.

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