AUBURN — After receiving inquiries from several solar developers, the city is planning to expand its current ordinance to allow large-scale solar arrays in the agricultural zone.

The Auburn Planning Board in March approved a $17.6 million solar project over 142 acres — between Auburn and Poland — that will feed 14.6 megawatts into the grid to Central Maine Power Co.

The move is the latest in a string of developments related to solar energy over the Past year in Auburn and beyond, leading up to a competitive procurement process by the Maine Public Utilities Commission, which will select a number of five-megawatt projects to subsidize.

The change to the ordinance will add solar arrays as a special exception in the zone, after the city previously allowed solar projects in the industrial zone. The City Council voted 6-1 last week in a first reading, likely paving the way for the ordinance to be amended June 1.

Mayor Jason Levesque said this week that solar projects in the agricultural zone could allow landowners to “monetize” land that is currently unused.

He said land cleared for solar energy could then make “more (agriculture) land readily available” for other uses after the life of the solar project. (The Maine PUC said approved solar projects will be for a term of 20 years.)

“It’s a great reason to to install solar arrays,” Levesque said, adding that using land for solar would not “do anything to diminish the land value long term.”

Both the Planning Board and Conservation Commission sent favorable recommendations to the City Council to approve the change. The Planning Board recommended projects in the agricultural zone meet eight additional conditions for approval, including setbacks.

“The proposed amendment does leave some flexibility for the Planning Board to review projects on a case-by-case basis and make decisions on prime soils and forested areas based on the sites under review,” a memo to the City Council reads.

A special exception review by the Planning Board is triggered when a project encompasses one-acre or more in surface area, according to the memo.

While the agricultural zone makes up about half of the city’s land area, Levesque said he does not expect solar projects to quickly add up. He said he estimates there could be a total of 100 acres worth of projects in the agricultural district, if current trends continue.

Earlier this year, the Auburn Planning Board approved a $17.6 million solar project over 142 acres — between Auburn and Poland — that will feed 14.6 megawatts into the grid to Central Maine Power Co.

In late April, the Lewiston Planning Board approved three commercial solar power projects around the city that would mean more than $13 million in investment. Each is vying for tax credits offered in the Maine PUC procurement process.

The City Council’s decision on the ordinance change last week coincided with the official formation of an Agriculture Committee, which has been in the works since Auburn approved a series of controversial changes to zoning rules in the agricultural zone.

The council approved the appointments of five members of the new committee, which will be tasked with making recommendations to the Planning Board.

During last week’s meeting, Councilor Belinda Gerry suggested the City Council ask the new committee for a recommendation regarding solar arrays in the agricultural zone, to see “if any warning flags go up with this new language and what were trying to do.”

In response, Levesque said solar “is an authorized land use in (agriculture) land, so no.”

“The (agriculture) committee should at least have some knowledge of this, or at least have a chance to read it,” Gerry said.

Gerry cast the lone vote against the ordinance changes.

 

CITY ELECTRIC COSTS

The City Council last week also signed off on two agreements that will offset the city’s electrical costs through hydropower and solar energy.

The agreements will allow Auburn to continue using hydropower from an Eagle Creek Renewable Energy facility to offset city energy costs, but will also add solar energy from a new array in Shapleigh.

A council memo explains that while the production from the Eagle Creek facility “will meet more than half the city’s needs, additional offsite solar options are available to cover a portion of the city’s remaining electricity requirements and provide additional savings.”

Those savings are estimated at $33,960 in the first year.

Facilities Manager Derek Boulanger said the agreement will mean about 70% of the city’s electricity would be “produced by local, clean, renewable energy sources.”


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