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May 8, 2018 | last updated May 8, 2018 2:07 pm

NextEra Energy moves forward on first of four large Maine solar farms

Photo / Maureen Milliken
Photo / Maureen Milliken
Aaron Svedlow, project director of solar development for NextEra Energy, stands on the Fairfield site where the company plans a 20 megawatt solar array. The project got Department of Environmental Protection approval last month, but still must be approved by the town's Planning Board.

When NextEra Energy's planned 20 megawatt solar project in Fairfield received Maine Department of Environmental Protection approval in last month, it was the first of several large-scale projects planned for Maine.

The solar aray is the largest approved by the department in the state so far, but If the company's three other underway projects are approved, they'll represent 165 megawatts worth of power production across southern, central and western Maine.

The four utility-level projects — in Fairfield, Clinton, Farmington and Sanford — all have power contracts with utilities and other users, said Aaron Svedlow, project director, solar director, for NextEra.

NextEra owns its solar developments, a change from Ranger Solar, the company whose assets it acquired last year, which generally developed projects then transferred them to another entity to own and operate.

The Farmington array, on Sandy River Farm land on U.S. Route 2, will produce 75 megawatts, Sanford will produce 50 and the one in Clinton will produce 20, Svedlow said.

The Fairfield project is on 120 acres off U.S. Route 201 near the Skowhegan line owned by the Flood dairy farm in Clinton. It is expected to create about 80 jobs during construction and represents a $34 million investment for NextEra.

NextEra went before the Fairfield Planning Board for a conditional site review public hearing in January, and still must get site review approval from the board. They are scheduled to be before the board in June.

The Clinton and Sanford projects are still in the DEP permitting process, and the Farmington one is expected to be submitted to the DEP shortly, Svedlow said.

The power generated by NextEra's plants generally is sold to utilities, Svedlow said. The exception will be the Farmington project, which is contracted to sell to Bowdoin College in Maine, as well as Smith, Williams, Amherst and Hampshire colleges in Massachusetts.

That project, which will be on about 320 acres at the farm, will create 180 construction jobs and cost nearly $100 million, according to Bowdoin's website.

Svedlow said much of it will be on land that's now forested and not cultivated farmland.

The farmland being used for the Fairfield project had been cultivated for silage corn for the dairy farm, Svedlow said, and will be converted into a meadow before the solar panels are installed.

As he stood in the fallow fields on a recent rainy afternoon talking about the project, several massive piles of manure in the distance were the only sign that the fields would soon change.

Svedlow said the solar farms are a good opportunity for farmers to get revenue from fields that may not produce much. He said NextEra scouts out locations, looking sites that are near established power lines, have the right geography and, in most cases, will be shielded from public view. The Fairfield location, for instance, on a hill surrounded by forest, won't have a negative impact on the rural aesthetic.

When the company acquired Ranger Solar in early 2017, it also inherited plans for an up to 100 megawatt array in at the former Loring Air Force Base in Limestone. Svedlow said because it's not connected to the New England power grid, like the company's other projects are, "We'd like to go forward, but it's more complicated."

He said the company also has several other projects in the early stages.

NextEra, which says it's the world's largest utility, operates hydro, wind and solar power plants. As of last year it had 29 solar facilities in seven states and also runs the Cousin's Island oil-powered plant in Yarmouth.

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