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February 25, 2019

Tremont solar project latest in CEI, Nature Conservancy funding collaboration

Courtesy / CEI A solar array on Tremont's capped landfill with provide 100% of the Mount Desert Island town's municipal electricity, and was built with help from an impact investment program that's a collaboration between CEI and the Nature Conservancy.

When the town of Tremont cut the ribbon on the new solar array on its capped landfill on Saturday, it marked not only a milestone for the town, but also the latest project in a collaborative investment loan structure that helps make solar power affordable to municipalities.

Coastal Enterprises Inc. and the Nature Conservancy have joined to provide impact investment loans that make solar power more affordable for municipalities, schools and other organizations working with tight budgets.

The Tremont project is the second municipal project to use one of the loans. The town of Waldoboro also used one for a solar array last year, also installed by Sundog Solar.

Others may follow soon, said John Egan, CEI chief investment officer.

Under the loan structure, the Nature Conservancy makes small zero-interest loans to CEI to include in its lending package to solar developers, which allows CEI to charge a lower interest rate to the developer. The developer then passes the lower cost to customers in the form of more attractive power purchase agreements.

While the loans from the Nature Conservancy to CEI are small, the way they are structured can have a big impact on a municipal budget, Egan told Mainebiz Monday.

“It moves the needle” for towns that may want to install a solar array, but can’t afford the upfront costs, he said.

In a 2017 survey of Maine municipalities conducted by TNC, 68% said energy costs are a significant or moderate concern to their community and 55% percent said they are very or somewhat interested in installing solar panels on municipal buildings or property yet cite inadequate tax revenue or grant funding for moving ahead.

Since the towns are already budgeting for electricity, the loans mean they don’t have to increase the budget to get the array installed, Egan said.

Low costs for town

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The Waldoboro town website has a page that shows real-time energy savings from its solar array, installed last year.

Tremont’s array, on the town’s capped landfill and built by Sundog Solar, of Searsport, will generate 100% of the electricity needed for municipal buildings in the town of 1,600.

It’s expected to save the town, with an annual budget of about $5.5 million a year, $400,000 in electricity costs over the next 25 years, according to a CEI news release.

The 153 kW solar array was installed with no upfront cost — the town has a six-year lease agreement with Tremont Solar LLC, which owns and operates the equipment and sells the power to the town. The LLC is made up of an tax equity investor, as well as the solar company, with CEI making the loan.

Tremont has the option to buy the panels when the lease expires.

“This solar project is a win-win for the community of Tremont,” said Town Manager Christopher Saunders in the release. “It lowers the town’s long-term energy costs and is good for the environment.”

Waldoboro has a real-time page on its website that shows energy savings, using data provided by Sundog Solar.

Egan said the page is a way for town residents to see how they are saving money, something it may be initially hard to convince people concerned about their tax bills of.

When towns saw that bigger cities, like Portland and South Portland, were installing solar, many thought it was beyond their reach.

“They see ‘this is for us, too,’” Egan said.

Both Waldoboro and Tremont’s arrays are on capped landfills, a way to make use of sensitive town property that wouldn’t ordinarily be used, Egan said.

The sites are open to the sun and the array installation doesn’t perforate the cap.

'Investment in Maine's future'

Aside from the two towns that have taken advantage of the new loan structure, CEI has developed a specialty in constructing renewable, and specifically solar, energy transactions and to date has financed 7.1 MW of total solar production across 25 projects in Maine and New Hampshire, it said in the release.

Egan said there are other municipal projects interested in the loans in the works, including some that include schools.

Solar projects are by nature more complex investment structures because of calculating the variable pricing of the multi-year electricity costs, not simply equipment and installation costs, according to the news release from CEI.

“This kind of innovative finance is an investment in Maine’s future,” said Egan in the release. “Climate investors and partners like TNC can participate in creating an investment that impacts people and the planet for the long term.”

Rob Wood, of the Nature Conservancy, said, “When municipalities choose to go solar, the community as a whole benefits.”

Wood, who is the Maine Energy Policy and Projects advisor for the organization, added, “We are grateful to CEI for providing a platform to make investments in Maine’s towns and our environment.”

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