Belfast takes the sun and runs with it

City pursues sustainable energy, and sustains the pursuit
By Ethan Andrews | Aug 27, 2016
Photo by: Ethan Andrews Assistant City Planner Sadie Lloyd, pictured at an energy committee meeting with members Jonathan Fulford, far right, and Andrew Carpenter, has been a catalyst for an ambitious slate of energy efficiency projects over the last two years.

Belfast — Over the past year, Belfast has quietly become a leader among Maine municipalities investing in renewable energy sources, and it's done so with a core tenet of renewable energy: use what you already have.

There's also been a bit of luck and good timing.

Belfast has never wanted for practically minded environmentalists — tiny house builders, passive home gurus and other high-order moonbats have flourished in the city. But the innovative ideas they brought to City Hall often languished for lack of political support or expertise.

Idealistic and frugal city officers, likewise, came and went without decreeing better insulation for city buildings or the swapping out of a few light bulbs.

Starting a couple of years ago, all that changed. The impetus may have been a spike in oil prices, but the reason the city was able to do things differently had a lot to do with Sadie Lloyd.

Lloyd was hired as assistant city planner in 2013. Previously she worked at Efficiency Maine, the independent organization that runs the state's energy efficiency program, offering rebates to offset the cost of new energy-efficient heating and lighting systems.

Speaking recently, she said she didn't show up at City Hall with an agenda. It was more that city officials were thinking about energy efficiency and she happened to have the expertise.

By luck or design, her arrival completed a kind of trinity that allowed for everything that followed: a handful of enthusiastic and knowledgeable volunteer committee members, political support from the City Council, and a city staff member with the specialized expertise to make things happen.

Previously, the city had an energy and climate committee, but the group worked on the periphery of official city business pursuing intangible goals like reducing the city's greenhouse gas footprint.

The committee was revived with a focus on specific energy efficiency projects for city buildings that promised to save money in the long run, but Andrew Carpenter, a soil scientist who served on both iterations of the committee, said the philosophical change wouldn't have amounted to much without the addition of Lloyd, who was appointed a staff representative.

"It goes a lot faster having somebody that can send out an RFP [Request For Proposals]," he said. "She can give us the big proposal, but in terms of going through the fine points of it, working through contractual issues, getting it to the City Council, it would be very difficult for a volunteer group to do."

Last year the city installed 180 photovoltaic panels on the roof of the fire station. This spring, it added close to 400 more at a capped landfill on Pitcher Road. It was the first such installation in the state. Collectively, the solar arrays produce about 18 percent of the electricity that the city uses.

The panels generate more electricity in the summer, which is when municipal buildings typically need more power to run air conditioners.

This phenomenon is mirrored on a larger scale, Lloyd said, in which solar electric installations like the ones in Belfast act as "small generators" for the electric grid, adding to the supply when larger generation stations are at maximum capacity.

"Every municipality that has a landfill should be doing it," Lloyd said. "Because you can't do anything with a landfill."

Other municipalities have considered similar projects, but uncertainty about the state's energy rules earlier this summer prompted many to put those projects on hold.

Belfast's solar farms were built by ReVision Energy under an arrangement that benefits both the company and the city. ReVision owns the panels and collects federal tax credits that would be useless to the city. Additionally, a power purchase agreement requires the city to buy the electricity generated at the solar farms from ReVision Energy for the first six years of operation.

The city pays between 6 and 8.5 cents per kilowatt hour for electricity from Central Maine Power and renewable energy provider Constellation. The rate for electricity produced by ReVision Energy's solar arrays starts at 13.6 cents per kilowatt hour and increases 2.25 percent per year through the six year term.

Between tax credits and energy sales, the deal allows ReVision Energy to recoup installation costs and make a profit. After six years, the city has the option to buy the solar installation at a discount. The system has a 40-year lifespan and is expected to pay for itself in 15 years.

ReVision has completed a number of similar projects in Maine and New Hampshire. All of them bank on net metering, which allows solar and other renewable energy producers to sell excess electricity back into the grid.

Falmouth, Portland, South Portland and Rockland were considering solar installations at landfills earlier this year when Gov. Paul LePage vetoed a major solar energy bill and sent municipalities scrambling. L.D. 1649 would have required the Public Utilities Commission to increase the amount of solar-generated electricity in Maine from 18 megawatts to 248 megawatts, and it would have made a wider range of projects eligible for net metering under more stable terms.

Sam Lavallee, project manager for ReVision Energy, said the veto didn't directly affect net metering. But it put an exclamation point on what Lavallee and other solar advocates see as the LePage administration's quest to snuff out solar power.

What municipalities are responding to, he said, is a mandate for Maine Public Utilities Commission to review power purchase terms for solar energy when it reaches 1 percent of the total energy production in the state. The commission is currently accepting public comment.

"The uncertainty around the future of net billing has scared a lot of municipalities off of doing solar," Lavallee said, "because solar relies heavily on net billing to make sure the payback period is there on investment."

Lavallee said changes to net metering could affect landfill projects like Belfast's more than arrays installed on top of a municipal building. The difference, he said, is that all of the electricity from an isolated solar farm goes directly into the grid where it is subject to net-metering terms. By contrast, a school or fire station with solar panels on the roof can use some of the electricity directly onsite before it hits the meter.

Whatever happens, Lavallee said, Belfast should be fine because the system is built and the city has contracts in place.

Belfast's transition away from fossil fuels — or toward energy and budget savings — doesn't end with its solar landfill. The City Council recently voted to retrofit eight city buildings — the harbor master's house, Main Street public restrooms, water treatment plant, police station, fire station, cemetery building, transfer station and trap shack — with energy-efficient LED lights.

On Aug. 16, the Council approved another round of LED retrofits, this time for 52 downtown street lamps. These are the antique cast iron light posts. Lloyd said changing overhead lights owned by CMP would be a more complicated process.

Being an early adopter has meant working through some kinks. Bright white LED street lights installed along the Harbor Walk and Cross Street inspired comparisons to airport runways and impending alien abductions. Lloyd said the energy committee set a limit on the color temperature for any new bulbs to get something closer to incandescent light.

An energy audit done by the city targets oil consumption by way of better insulation and windows and more efficient heating systems.

City Councilor Mike Hurley said the city only got serious about saving energy when it got expensive. During the spike in oil prices that brought gasoline over $4 per gallon, Hurley mounted a 55-gallon oil drum on legs and emblazoned it with statistics about how much oil the city was using.

In 10 years, Hurley estimated the city had burned enough to fill barrels lined end-to-end from the downtown traffic light to Bayside Store in Northport. The money spent on oil and electricity in the same period totaled more than the city's entire budget for a year.

"There was a huge financial reason to do this," he said. "Screw global warming. Screw the example. Imagine if we didn't spend $4.5 million over 10 years. That's pretty amazing."

The city hired a specialist earlier this year to look at potential heating system upgrades for the transfer station, library, wastewater treatment plant and boathouse — special cases for which planning a heating system is more complicated. Plans for a heating system at the transfer station that would burn scrap wood was abandoned based on the quality of the wood the facility was collecting.

"It's absolutely an ongoing thing," Hurley said. "I don't think it's ever going to stop."

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