FARMINGTON – A crowd gathered Wednesday evening on the University of Maine at Farmington campus to ask questions, voice concerns and gather information on a solar power project planning to break ground in the winter of 2018.
Representatives from NextEra Energy Inc., a Florida-based company, mingled with a crowd of local residents for an informal presentation of the proposed project. NextEra purchased the project from Ranger Solar, the original developer, earlier this year.
“We’ve heard some great thoughts tonight. We’re still in a position to make changes and we’re encouraging as much public participation as possible. The most important thing to us to be forward facing,” project manager Liz Peyton said.
Display boards provided projections of what the solar panels would look like from various points in town, and a rundown of how the energy is actually captured and distributed. Layouts of the proposed project filled the room with roughly 40 people inspecting and questioning them.
The project, which is the biggest in the state, will impact roughly 600 acres of land throughout the Farmington area, half of which is expected to be covered by the panels themselves. Those in favor of the project argue that the nearly $100 million investment is expected to bring significant tax benefits to the town, a benefit that has been seen with a similar project in Sanford.
“Will my electric bill drop? Probably not. But it could be a huge tax benefit that could help our schools. Why wouldn’t we want them here?” resident Susan McPherran said.
Other attendees stressed their concern at not seeing the local electric bill reduced. One resident, whose property abuts one of the sites, said he is in support of solar energy, but he doesn’t understand why the gathered electricity can’t stop along the way and help the locals before being shipped out of state.
The bigger picture of solar power is much more complicated than that, project director Aaron Svedlow said. Svedlow lives in Yarmouth and is overseeing this project, as he has with others that NextEra has worked on.
“The electricity is being purchased by Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts, but the power helps the entire grid. We’re not an isolated regional transmission system,” Svedlow said.
He likened it to a giant swimming pool, where all of the energy from all of the solar projects across the region collects. At various points along the edge are the straws of companies who are drawing from the pool. The companies with the highest bids are allowed to add their straw. Maine, Svedlow said, doesn’t have a process in place yet for adding its straw to the pool.
“But Farmington gets all of the tax benefits. It’s just like our paper, lumber, lobster and blueberry exports – we export the power and benefit from it. Plus, this project doesn’t require services from the town and isn’t looking for any hand outs. We’re pretty pleased about building such a large facility with such a minimum impact,” Svedlow said.
That “minimum impact” was another topic of concern for those in attendance. Engineers for the project detailed efforts to make it as least impactful on the environment and residents as possible. The company is investigating the local bat population and conducting a rare plant species study. The company has used existing logging roads whenever possible and will only clear land that has been previously cleared in the past 15 years.
But residents continued to voice concerns.
“Sometimes minimal isn’t so minimal. Fear brought us here tonight,” resident Terry Collins said.
“They say the land will be restored after the project is done, but it won’t restore the deer who have moved. It’s not accurate information,” resident Lois Seamon said.
The project has a life expectancy of 25-35 years and is contracted to be decommissioned at that time. The company will then remove the panels to be recycled and restore the land to its original state. Svedlow told a resident that if for some reason the panels stop working before the 25-35 year mark, efforts will be made to repair the problem and if a panel is not being used it will be removed.
An application for Planning Board review is expected to be in by December or January, at which point the project’s next phase will be discussed and presented the public.