The Council renews the solar moratorium for 180 days

ELLSWORTH — At the city council meeting on March 21, the council voted to extend the moratorium on medium and large-scale solar projects for another 180 days. The vote was 6 to 1, with Councilor Steve O’Halloran being the sole opposition.

O’Halloran was concerned about the optics of the city appearing to push through two solar projects that “benefited the city” and then halting the projects for 180 days, with a possible additional 180 days added to this extension.

But council chairman Dale Hamilton explained that in the first decision on the moratorium, the council allowed all projects already underway to continue through the lengthy approval process. The advisors then took the opportunity when there were no other projects on file to take a break and gather more information on the subject. He also reminded the meeting that any benefit the town received from the Mariaville Road project was in fact collected by the ratepayers.

“This project, whether the city was involved or not, this project had already received approval,” Hamilton explained. “And the benefits of this project, the savings that are created for the city, means taxpayers will pay less in taxes to cover electricity costs. And if we hadn’t bought, they would have sold it to another entity. And so, the decision was made on behalf of the taxpayers.

The two arrays on Mariaville Road, from which the city plans to purchase net energy credits, were among seven solar parks offered over a period of less than 18 months between spring 2020 and fall 2021. Applications for the seven of these projects were processed and six of them obtained Planning Board approval before the initial moratorium was put in place on October 18, 2021. The seventh obtained approval just under a month later in November. He was able to continue the process because his request had been received before the moratorium was put in place.

One of the reasons for the moratorium was that councilors were concerned about whether there were benefits to be gained from the proliferation of solar power developments. Councilor Michelle Kaplan argued that the developers of these projects were not required to sell the energy they produce locally under the current order.

In a statement to The American this week, city planner Elena Piekut said: “While I appreciate the councillor’s concerns about strengthening local economic democracy and energy resilience, I highly doubt there is a mechanism legal by which the city can dictate who a private company sells its product to, especially when it’s a regulated utility Even if there were, I probably wouldn’t favor using a land use and development ordinances to achieve this.

Another concern raised by Councilor Gene Lyons was the possibility that the city would be left to cover the cost of a possible decommissioning of these facilities. But the language adopted by the Planning Board and City Council when it amended the ordinance in April 2020 to allow solar projects addressed this concern. It clearly states that the developers are responsible for providing a detailed plan for teardown and “demonstration”.[ing] in the form of a performance bond, surety bond, letter of credit, parent company guarantee or other form of financial assurance acceptable to the Administrator only to At the end of the useful life of the installation, the applicant will have the necessary financial resources insurance in place for 100% of the total cost of dismantling.

With the moratorium firmly in place, the next step is for the City Council and the Planning Board to hold a joint public workshop to try to gather more information on the subject. Urban planner Piekut informed council at the meeting that she was working to bring in a consultant the city has worked with in the past who is an expert not only in renewables but in energy markets as a whole in the northeast. A date has not yet been set for the workshop, but the hope was to schedule the meeting before the budget process begins in earnest on April 25.

After that, Piekut and the Planning Council will review the ordinance and propose any changes for council approval. While Piekut wouldn’t comment on what the council might specifically come up with after its review, there were a few areas she hoped could be considered. These include zoning or where solar projects of this scale might be allowed to be built. Another possible change could be to refine language around stormwater and consider ways to limit the amount of prime farmland soil and/or unfragmented habitat blocks that are affected by large solar developments. Piekut also plans to recommend to the board to consider incentives or even requirements for rooftop-mounted solar rather than ground-mounted.

If this process requires more time, another vote to extend the moratorium should take place before October 13. But it is also possible to lift the moratorium at any time before the end of the 180-day period.

Journalist Zach Lanning covers news and features in the Ellsworth area. He’s coming to Ellsworth from New Jersey, which he hopes you don’t mind. Email him at [email protected].
Zachary Lanning
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