St. George – Voters will have a say on two renewable energy projects June 13 in addition to the St. George Municipal School Unit budget and state bond question.
One question will ask whether voters approve of the town entering into an agreement with a solar company to install panels on the roof of the Transfer Station. The other will ask whether voters will allow the town to establish a committee and hire legal representation to negotiate benefits should power cables from a planned offshore wind project come through Port Clyde.
A public hearing is scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. on Saturday, June 3 to address the two energy projects.
Of the two, one, the Aqua Ventus wind project, has already drawn considerable controversy in the region. The planned project involves erecting two 600-foot-tall, floating wind turbines near Monhegan Island for a 20-year test of new technology.
The question set for the ballot will ask whether voters approve of establishing an ad hoc committee and hiring legal representation to negotiate a potential benefit agreement with Aqua Ventus, should power cables from the turbines make landfall at the town-owned 10 Cold Storage Road property in Port Clyde.
Select Board Chairman Richard Bates said the ballot question had come about after receiving legal advice that suggests a 2009 law prohibited municipalities from blocking “renewable ocean energy projects”:
“A municipality may not enact or enforce a land use ordinance that prohibits siting of renewable ocean energy projects, including but not limited to their associated facilities, within the municipality. Nothing in this section is intended to authorize a municipality to enact or enforce a land use ordinance as applied to submerged lands.”
“While I know that a lot of people aren’t happy about this, that’s the way the law’s been set up,” said Bates. He said this had shifted the question for the town. “What you can really do is discuss potential benefits,” he said. “The question is who is going to get the benefits.”
Bates said allowing Aqua Ventus to plant its 34.5-kilovolt cables at 10 Cold Storage Road would open up the possibility for the town to negotiate a benefits agreement. Otherwise, he said he is confident a private landowner would step forward to receive any benefits for accepting the cables.
Among specific benefits that have been mentioned are proceeds from a lease of the town’s property and a condition limiting “aerial clutter” from overhead cables running through town.
St. George’s Select Board members have met with town officials from Bristol, where Aqua Ventus had previously considered landing cables. That plan was aborted, Bates and Harbormaster Dave Schmanska have said, after seabed conditions in Muscongus Bay were deemed inhospitable for power cables.
Bristol residents also mounted opposition to the cable siting, voting in 2014 to reject the cables. Bristol’s Select Board and attorney had advised that the vote would not be binding, but the town went ahead with the vote anyway. In any case, Aqua Ventus had at that time already stalled due to a lack of funding.
Members of the St. George Select Board have also discussed the matter with attorney Jennifer Villeneuve of Damariscotta law firm Gallagher, Villeneuve, and DeGeer, who represented Bristol during the negotiations with Aqua Ventus; and with Suzanne MacDonald of the Island Institute.
The current town attorney’s firm also represents Aqua Ventus, meaning the town would have to hire another lawyer for representation in any benefit negotiations.
Bates said he thinks Aqua Ventus has an interest in reaching a “reasonable” agreement with the town, noting that a primary aim of the wind project is to demonstrate to investors the feasibility of a much larger wind farm using the same technology further off of Maine’s coast.
The Select Board has also been discussing whether to install solar panels on the roof of the Transfer Station for the past 18 months.
“We’re not looking at it as a green effect, but a purely financial transaction,” said Bates. “We’re doing this because it makes sense financially.”
He said the Select Board had held off on a decision while the state Public Utilities Commission debated how much credit to give solar panel users for “net metering” – the practice of selling excess energy produced back into the grid.
The commission decided in January to allow customers who currently have solar installations and those who adopt them to collect a full rate on their excess power through 2017, but starting in 2018 the credit for net metering will begin to decrease.
On that basis, Bates said the town sees it in its interest to move forward with the installation this year to reap the full benefits of net metering. He said the town had received quotes from three companies: ReVision Energy, Maine Solar Solutions and SunDog Solar.
He said the town has enough funds set aside to pay for the project, and referenced the $20,000 Energy Efficiency Reserve approved as part of the 2017 budget at this year’s Town Meeting earlier in May.
Bates said credits from solar power generation would pay back the cost of installing the panels in less than 10 years.
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