When you think of emerging markets for community solar, Maine may not pop immediately to mind. But, looking beyond lobsters, cold, snowy winters and the rugged pragmatism of its residents, Mainers in the industry say the state was ripe for a boom in these commercial-size projects that provide power to local grids, and utility bill credits to subscribers unable to put solar on their roofs.

“We’re very large; we’ve got a lot of land, and it’s sparsely populated,” said Dale Knapp, principal at Boyle Associates, an environmental consulting firm that is currently helping to permit a pipeline of 70 solar projects in the state. “We also have a rich history of small, local farms serving their communities. So, the idea of keeping resources in the state, helping out people that are around us, that kind of narrative really speaks well to people in Maine. They like that farm-to-table energy.”

Community solar has been in major growth mode in the state since June 2019, when Democratic Gov. Janet Mills signed a law specifically designed to promote distributed solar development. Passed with broad bipartisan support, L.D. 1711 opened the door for what it called “large-scale shared distributed generation resources” — community solar projects of 5 MW or less — and developers piled in.

Before the law, the membership of the Maine Renewable Energy Association (MREA) included only a handful of solar companies, said Jeremy Payne, the group’s executive director. Now it has dozens.

“Like most solar companies, we follow the policies. That’s how we stay in business,” said Brett Pingree, director of development for Soltage, a New Jersey-based developer — and MREA member — with 45 MW of community solar projects planned or under construction in Maine. He estimated the company has already invested about $1 million to develop those projects.

The influx of solar investment is pivotal as the state looks to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic, said Payne. “We have literally dozens of Maine companies working on projects, from small construction companies to large civil engineering firms. This is serious economic activity in a state with 1.3 million people,” he said.

Maine’s business community also looks ready to buy into the opportunity for greening its energy supply. Bath Iron Works, the state’s largest energy consumer, has signed up to get power from six solar projects set to break ground this year, according to a recent article in the Portland Press Herald. A major defense contractor building ships for the U.S. Navy, the company says the energy savings from the projects will help it reduce costs and remain competitive for big, job-generating projects.

At the local level, a 5-MW project requires, on average, around 20 acres, developers say, and for farmers and other landowners, leasing that much land for 10 to 20 years or more means a stable stream of extra income. Similarly, towns permitting these projects may anticipate long-term tax revenues and a bumper crop of well-paid, temporary construction jobs.

According to SunRaise, a New Hampshire-based developer, the five projects it currently has under construction in Maine, have generated about 390 jobs lasting five-six months.

The interconnection issue

The community solar projects now coming online and in development in Maine are intended to serve a mix of residential and small business subscribers. As a result, Mainers have also seen an influx of retail power companies — such as Nexamp and Arcadia — offering power from the projects at rates below utility rates.

But the rush to embrace community solar notwithstanding, Maine’s policy-driven market also faces limitations — specifically the state’s 100-year-old grid.

On the one hand, the wires serving the state’s sparse population and small towns are practically made for well-planned distributed energy, said Patrick Jackson, senior vice president of project development at SunRaise. Local distribution systems and substations can “handle two, maybe three of these larger community solar projects,” Jackson said. “We’re very intentional about where we propose projects because we want them to be well-received by the public and stakeholders.”

In Waldoboro, a town of 5,000 on Maine’s central coast, the panels of a recently commissioned SunRaise project undulate over a hilly, 10-acre plot, a design allowing the company to avoid grading the site, and the ledge of granite that runs underneath it.

Taking advantage of the state’s added incentives for brownfield development, Soltage is currently developing a 4.2-MW project on an overgrown, long-abandoned lot in Parsonsfield, a town of less than 2,000 in southern Maine.  A box factory once stood on the 18-acre site, which more recently has been used by locals for dumping trash and other debris, said Jesse Stacey, a town selectman whose family has lived in Parsonsfield for seven generations.

Soltage has already cleared and fenced in the site, which is half public and half private land, Stacey said. Leasing fees and property taxes from the project are expected to bring the town hundreds of thousands of dollars over its 20-year life span.

They will, that is, providing the project can get interconnected. Central Maine Power, the state’s largest investor-owned utility, appears to have been unprepared for the wave of new projects applying for interconnection. Its aging distribution system was not built to handle the variable, bidirectional energy flows community solar produces, and upgrades will be needed.

L.D. 1711 set a target of 250 MW of community solar, but, said Eric Stinneford, CMP’s vice president, controller and treasurer,  the utility “had somewhere around 600 projects, seeking to interconnect, representing about 2,000 MW of solar projects and battery projects combined. That’s on a CMP system that’s about a 1,700-MW peak system.”

The utility currently has a queue of 117 MW waiting for interconnection in and around the state capital of Augusta and recently completed a study looking at the impact of interconnecting 67 MW of that total. The report found the necessary system upgrades could put projects on hold till the end of 2025 — a time frame that had the solar industry raising red flags.

At Soltage, for example, Pingree estimated such delays would “dramatically slow down eight of the top 10 projects we have” in the state. But, Stinneford said, the cumulative impact of interconnecting all the projects could result in voltage fluctuations that could overload the system, which up until now has been able to ride out any highs or lows that occur.

Zero to 60

Both sides are calling for collaboration. The developers are suggesting more detailed studies to better identify problems and allow some projects to move ahead. Stinneford also says further studies, along with a combination of technical upgrades and operational adjustments, could help cut interconnection times and get projects online earlier.

Looking ahead, developers see ongoing opportunity for community solar in Maine. The demand and potential benefits are clearly there, but, they say, continuing to grow the market will require predictability and engagement — both in terms of legislative policy and utility collaboration.

With President Joe Biden setting an aggressive agenda on climate action, Maine could provide a case study in state action for rapid acceleration of renewables. Dale Knapp at Boyle Associates points to Gov. Mills’ recently released Climate Action Plan, which sets 2045 as the target for the state to achieve carbon neutrality.

“You’re looking at a state that two years ago had one of the smallest percentages of megawatts of solar in the United States,” Knapp said. “And all of a sudden, we’re trying to go from zero to 60. That puts pressure on policy makers to make sure we have pathways to make that happen. That means really stepping up.”