In a state where Vitamin D supplements are encouraged because we cannot soak up enough sunlight, the burgeoning popularity of solar power can be a bit of a head scratcher. But strides in technology efficiency, the critical need to reduce carbon emissions, rising consumer interest and state and federal incentives have positioned solar power to be the next energy frontier in Maine. Developers have proposed a slew of solar projects around the state. How many will come to fruition remains to be seen.
The industry will have a lot of growing to do to make a dent in Maine’s energy market. Solar accounted for less than one percent of the state’s electricity in 2019. Some of that growing will be done here in Hancock County. The Ellsworth City Council on Monday considered a power purchase agreement for solar energy generated by planned arrays off Mariaville Road. In November 2019, the state accepted as complete Three Rivers Solar Power’s application to construct a utility-scale solar farm in Township 16. An Irish company, BNRG Renewables, announced this summer it is partnering with Portland-based Dirigo Solar to build a farm in Hancock.
Maine doesn’t generate enough power to meet in-state demand, importing more than a quarter of its supply from the Canadian grid. What it does generate is largely (about four-fifths of net electricity generation) from renewable sources. Hydropower leads the pack, followed by biomass and wind. But the state has embarked on a more ambitious plan. Maine’s renewable portfolio standard (RPS) requires that a percentage of each electric utility’s retail sales come from renewable sources. Updates to the RPS last year raised the bar to 80 percent from renewable sources by 2030, and to 100 percent by 2050.
There is no one way to get there and no “green” energy is perfect. Maine has a long history of hydroelectric production and untapped potential to produce more. But, damming waterways disrupts local ecosystems and fluctuating water levels can upset the neighbors. It is a balancing act as it is with the growing wind industry in Maine. Wind turbines are no friend to birds or bats or to Mainers who appreciate untouched vistas. But, the overall environmental impact is small compared to oil or coal. In 2019, wind harnessed in Maine accounted for two-thirds of all wind-powered generation in New England. The state has more than 900 megawatts of wind generating capacity.
Some of that capacity is in Hancock County, including the Hancock Wind (51 MW capacity) and Bull Hill Wind (34.5 MW) farms. Weaver Wind, with turbines in Eastbrook and Osborn, is expected to be online by the end of the year and have a total capacity of 72.6 MW. Hydropower is longer established in the county. The Leonard Lake Dam in Ellsworth has four turbine generator units with a total capacity of 8.9 MW. Rural, resource-rich and with infrastructure already established, Hancock County could be home to more solar and wind projects.
With careful management, growth in Maine’s renewable energy sector can create jobs, reduce carbon emissions and make the state more self–reliant. The trick will be ensuring these new frontiers are practical and sustainable in the long run.