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RSU 71 board opts not to enter into 20-year solar credit contract

By Kendra Caruso | Feb 16, 2021
Source: File photo

Belfast — Regional School Unit 71 Board of Directors decided against entering into a 20-year solar contract with a contractor building a local solar development.

Board members were thrown off by the contract length at their Feb. 1 meeting. Many did not feel comfortable signing a contract for so long, and were concerned the program issuing the credits through the state was not stable.

The initiative was led by high schoolers with the aim of making the school’s energy consumption more sustainable. The high school’s buildings are not sturdy enough to mount panels on its roof and there is not enough land to place an array of panels on, so the district decided to explore the option of solar credits through Central Maine Power.

Belfast Area High School student Alice Andrews has been a student leader of the project. She wrote in an email to The Republican Journal that she is disappointed board members did not see the overall benefits of entering into a solar credit contract. She is still happy to have been a part of the effort and hopes other students push for projects that transition the district into using cleaner energy.

Charlie Agnew, Competitive Energy Services' managing director of energy services, worked for over a year with the school to determine its energy demand and find a contractor that offers the best rates and amenities for the school, he said.

Aga Agnieszka of law firm Drummond Woodsum said the 20-year contract is typical and none of the other people or businesses contracting with the solar developer have an early termination agreement. If rates changed after a number of years because of alterations to solar legislation, then the district could renegotiate its contract.

It was originally proposed to purchase 75% of the district’s historical electricity use from the project, which would consume about 11% of the solar project's total energy production.

Board member David Crabiel thought using the district's historical electricity usage to determine how much energy from the project to purchase resulted in too high a figure, because the electricity use of some of the schools in the district went down by 30% after an escrow project, he said.

Agnieszka said the contractors were willing to lower the amount of electricity the district wanted to purchase from the company to whatever board members were comfortable with.

Agnew said at a previous meeting that the project is attractive and tried to reassure board members that he would not have brought them the deal if he felt that it was a financial risk to the district. An exit clause in the contract is not agreeable to the contractor, because the contractor pays the entire cost of the development and needs to make sure the project makes a profit to cover the cost of construction over the course of the solar field’s lifetime.

He said the only threat to the project is politics, as solar legislation could be rescinded or changed that would make the project less financially feasible. But he thinks it is not likely because of the large number of residents buying credits from a number of solar developments cropping up across the state.

Still, the explanation did not put many of the board members at ease about their concerns. Board members voted six to two against entering into the contract. Jessica Woods and Josh Solebello voted in favor of the contract, and Scott Cournoyer was absent from the meeting.

Agnew stressed to the board that after voting down the contract they would no longer have the option to enter into it in the future. He fought to get the district a contract for credits through that particular project because it was in the same town as the development and getting those project’s credits was a “one time opportunity.”

The board had a brief discussion about other energy projects it could consider, but with shorter contract lengths, like hydropower. The district will still work with Competitive Energy Services to find an energy project that is more accommodating to board members’ requests.

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