News Feature

Originally published in The Weekly Packet, November 14, 2019
Brooksville to consider solar power

Solar power

Andrew Karle, right, a solar design specialist with Revision Energy, chats with Brooksville residents about potential plans to construct a solar array field in town that would help to lower the town’s electric bills.

Photo by Rich Hewitt Order prints of selected PBP photos.

by Rich Hewitt

A dozen or so residents got a lesson in solar power last week as part of the town’s preparation to vote on construction of a solar array to power the municipal and school buildings.

For the past year or so, the local Solar Interest Group of the Climate Action Network has been working with the selectmen and the school principal to research ways to reduce the town’s electric bills, according to Tony Ferraro, a group member. Recent changes in state regulation have made it easier and more economical for towns to use solar energy to lower their power bills. The cost savings, Ferraro said, could be profound, but the benefits are not only financial. It’s also good for the environment.

“So these two things are working together to make this happen,” he said.

The November 7 meeting served as the public hearing for a planned special town meeting for the town to vote on whether to establish a solar array field in the town. No date had been set for that meeting.

There are a number of methods for the town to pursue solar power, including building a solar array on its own. The drawback to that, according to Andrew Karle, a solar design specialist with Revision Energy who has been working with the town to identify options, is that the town would incur the construction/installation costs—in this case, an estimated $500,000. And the town cannot take advantage of the income tax breaks available to individuals. That’s why many towns use the power purchase agreement (PPA) formula, Karle said.

The PPA, he explained, is a contractual agreement between the town and an investor who puts up the funds to construct and operate the solar array and also reaps the benefit of any available tax breaks. Under the terms of the contract, the town agrees to purchase power from the investor at a rate that is less than what the town now pays to the utility company. The town can negotiate to pay a fixed rate for the duration of the contract or an escalating rate. Either way, he said, the town would be obligated to purchase the amount of electricity stipulated in the contract, even if it decreases its power needs. The other risk in a PPA is the possibility that utility rates will go down in the future. In that scenario, although unlikely, the town would still pay the rate agreed upon in the PPA.

The benefit of the PPA, which is the method the town is considering, Karle said, is that Brooksville could become a solar user without any initial investment.

“Under a PPA, there’s no up-front cost,” he said. “And starting Day One, you save money on your power bills.”

Based on current rate increase projections, Karle added, the town could save an estimated $1.3 million in energy costs over the next 40 years. The savings are estimated at $300,000 over a 20-year period, he said.

Under the contract, the town would have the option to purchase the system after five or six years. In year 20 of the agreement, the town again could purchase the system, end the contract, or extend it for another five years.

Residents peppered Karle with questions about the potential contract ranging from who a likely investor might be to what happens if the investor goes out of business, what the town’s liability might be and what the rate would be under a PPA.

Karle said the contract generally is designed to protect both parties. The investor is committed to provide power and if he or she does not live up to that commitment, the town can “pursue remedies.” If an investor goes out of business, he said, the terms of the contract generally make it a desirable purchase for another investor. Investors could be anyone, including a local resident, Karle said. Generally, Revision works through its subsidiary company with a pool of investors who have already committed to take a lower return on their investment because they believe in the solar project.

Investors take on responsibility for the operation and maintenance costs and are responsible for any damage to the system. Solar panels generally carry a 25-year warranty and are designed to withstand the 100-year wind, which in this region is about 125 knots. Karle noted that Revision has installed about 7,000 systems in Maine and New Hampshire and has not yet lost a panel.

According to Selectman John Gray, the town does not own a suitable parcel for the project. Based on the town’s power needs, the town is looking at a 200-kilowatt project, which would require about an acre of land. Karle said they are currently looking for a local property owner from whom to lease property for the project if it goes forward.

Although Revision has been working with the town, the selectmen have not yet chosen a vendor to build the project, but they have published a request for qualifications from potential vendors. If voters decide to move forward and the town can select a vendor by the end of the year, the project could be designed and in operation before the end of 2020.