SOUTH PORTLAND — The mood was hopeful last week as 14 municipal officials and environmental leaders from across Maine discussed the status of several solar proposals making their way through the Legislature this session.

City and town representatives from York to Gardiner to Tremont were on a conference call organized by Julie Rosenbach, South Portland’s sustainability director. Since 2015, Rosenbach has overseen the city’s pursuit of a healthy environment, a strong community and a competitive economy.

Sandy Carder, a Gray town councilor, was among the officials listening in. Her town plans to develop a solar array on its capped former landfill. She tuned in to learn from other communities that have already gone through the process. That includes South Portland, a city of more than 25,000 people that topped its former landfill with the state’s largest municipal solar array in 2017.

“We’ve really appreciated all the information sharing,” Carder said while introducing herself to others on the call.

“When you’re a small town, starting a project from scratch takes a lot of resources,” Carder explained later. “The information sharing, networking and plugging into what’s going on in Augusta – it’s all unusually helpful.”

This year, 17 cities and towns across Maine have formed a coalition, led by South Portland, to help pursue legislation that would make it easier for municipalities to develop solar facilities and other projects geared toward increasing sustainability, lowering costs and reducing carbon footprints.

Members of the Municipal Energy Priorities group are Portland, South Portland, Falmouth, Scarborough, Denmark, Sebago, Gray, Gardiner, Saint Agatha, Bristol, Chelsea, Tremont, Fayette, Rockland, Camden, Bath and York, plus Cumberland County.

Officials from more than a dozen other communities are listening in, receiving email updates and keeping track in other ways, including Lewiston, Belfast, Bar Harbor, Ellsworth, Freeport, Kittery, Mount Desert, Sanford, Stockton Springs, Windham and Yarmouth. Representatives of groups such as the Natural Resources Council of Maine and Maine Conservation Voters are participating and providing information.

Forming the coalition solidified South Portland’s standing as a statewide leader in sustainable policymaking and practices, which basically take into account the preservation of natural resources.

The city’s efforts have included curbing the use of plastics and pesticides; promoting development of walkable neighborhoods with affordable, energy-efficient housing; and facing down an international oil company in an ongoing federal lawsuit.

SHARING VALUABLE EXPERTISE

In recent years, Maine’s fourth-largest city has made a point of sharing its experience with other municipalities, recognizing that few communities in a mostly rural state can afford to staff a sustainability office. There are a handful in Maine, including Portland, Scarborough and Falmouth.

“Other people like sustainability in concept, but when it comes to spending the money, it’s harder to keep people engaged and committed,” Rosenbach said. She was the sustainability manager at Bates College in Lewiston for eight years prior to taking the job in South Portland. Before that, she was a waste reduction specialist for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, D.C.

Rosenbach has asked for a budget increase this spring, from $112,080 in fiscal 2019, which ends June 30, to $141,674 for fiscal 2020, largely so her part-time assistant, Lucy Brennan, could work full time for the city.

Mayor Claude Morgan, who heads South Portland’s City Council, said Rosenbach likely will get more than she asked for so Brennan can start working full time in July rather than wait until January 2020.

Morgan said he’s glad Rosenbach’s outreach and the city’s experience in environmental action are benefiting other municipalities.

“While it’s costing us to develop that knowledge, it doesn’t cost us anything to give it away,” Morgan said. “We sort of have a moral obligation to do the right thing and to share it.”

Gray, a town north of Portland with more than 8,000 residents, has benefited from South Portland’s generosity for nearly a year.

“We’ve been talking about going solar for a while, but we didn’t really gain any traction until we visited South Portland’s array last June,” said Carder, the town councilor. “We saw what they’ve done and thought, ‘This could really work for us.’ ”

BUILDING SUSTAINABILITY

South Portland has been at the forefront of environmental action for more than a decade, taking steps to address climate change that have involved nearly every city department and touched every resident.

The city’s efforts are based on the premise that scientists say carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases produced by burning fossil fuels and other human activity are contributing to a warming atmosphere, melting ice caps and glaciers, sea-level rise, ocean acidification, changing weather patterns and other conditions related to accelerated climate change. It’s also generally accepted and stated without debate at public meetings that single-use plastics and many synthetic chemicals are bad for the environment and human health.

The City Council has passed a ban on foam food containers, a 5-cent fee on single-use shopping bags and a pesticide ordinance that’s on track to be expanded to include synthetic fertilizers in the coming months.

The city also has leased electric cars and installed public charging stations; added food waste collection to its recycling program; nearly finished converting its street lights to energy-saving LED fixtures; and completed a multimillion-dollar sewer and storm drain separation project to protect Casco Bay, well ahead of many other communities.

Then there’s the 2,944-panel solar array that South Portland started operating in 2017. Built by ReVision Energy of Portland, it’s designed to generate 1.2 million kilowatt-hours of energy per year, or roughly 12 percent of the electricity used by the city’s municipal and school buildings.

Portland, Maine’s largest city with more than 66,000 residents, has since completed a slightly smaller array on its landfill. Under solar contracts negotiated in tandem, each city will purchase electricity from ReVision at higher-than-market rates for the first six years, before being able to buy the solar equipment outright for nearly $1.6 million.

The neighboring cities have collaborated on many environmental initiatives, developed with Troy Moon, Portland’s sustainability chief. Most recently, each city has allocated $110,000 to share a consultant and develop individual community-based plans to deal with climate change impacts, including sea-level rise at the edge of Casco Bay.

GOING IT ALONE

But it’s South Portland’s willingness to take on big-ticket environmental challenges that sets it apart from other Maine cities and towns. In 2014, the City Council passed the so-called Clear Skies ordinance, which banned the bulk loading of crude oil into tankers in Portland Harbor because of potential air quality and health impacts.

The controversial ordinance effectively blocked the Portland Pipe Line Corp. from reversing the flow of its pipeline, which has carried foreign crude from harbor terminals in South Portland to Montreal refineries since World War II. The ordinance anticipated the day when demand for foreign crude would dry up and the company might want to use the pipeline to bring Canadian tar sands oil south.

Now, the pipeline is largely unused and the company, a Canadian-owned subsidiary of ExxonMobil, Shell and Suncor Energy, is challenging the ordinance in federal court. The city hired a Boston law firm and has so far spent $2.4 million fighting the 2015 lawsuit, including $174,000 donated by residents and others.

The city won the first round in U.S. District Court in Portland last year, when a judge ruled that South Portland had the right to enact the zoning, that it didn’t violate the Constitution and that it acted in keeping with the city’s comprehensive plan. The company filed a notice of intent to appeal the decision in November.

Last month, the city learned that the EPA filed a federal lawsuit and consent decree against Global Partners LP, a Fortune 500 company that operates a fuel storage facility on the banks of the Fore River.

The EPA charged Global with violating the federal Clean Air Act and its emissions license issued by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. Global and Maine DEP officials dispute the EPA’s findings, but the lawsuit has called attention to a variety of pollution, odor, traffic and other community concerns related to more than 100 bulk oil storage tanks and other petroleum facilities in the city.

The city has hired a second set of lawyers to respond to the EPA lawsuit and consent decree. And after hearing unanimous calls for action at two recent public meetings on the issue, the city is developing plans to establish its own air-quality monitoring program.

“The situation with Global has emphasized that we really need to be doing it ourselves because we don’t want surprises,” said Morgan, South Portland’s mayor. “This is happening in our own backyards.”

MAINE’S ‘GREENEST’ CITY?

Asked if South Portland’s environmental activism makes it the “greenest” city in Maine, Morgan declined to quantify what he said really cannot be measured.

Morgan noted that the city has been on a path to sustainability since 2007, the last time he was mayor, when the city signed onto the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection agreement, which set a goal to reduce carbon emissions below 1990 levels.

South Portland’s Municipal Climate Action Plan, adopted in 2014, called for city operations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 17 percent by 2017, which the city exceeded by 6 percentage points in advance of the deadline.

Now, the city aims to use 100 percent clean renewable energy for municipal operations by 2040, and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent citywide by 2050 through increased efficiency, conservation and renewable energy initiatives.

Another citywide goal is to increase South Portland’s recycling rate from about 29 percent to 40 percent by 2020 through a campaign to encourage purposeful buying, reuse, recycling and composting.

With the statewide municipal coalition, Rosenbach is promoting the following legislative initiatives:

• Revise net metering rules so municipal solar arrays can exceed the current 660-kilowatt size limit and have more than nine off-site meters or users, among other changes.

• Update Maine’s Uniform Building and Energy Code so cities and towns can develop so-called stretch codes, which phase in stricter requirements for energy-efficient construction.

• Improve access to energy-use data from utility companies for municipalities that have adopted so-called benchmarking ordinances, including Portland and South Portland. This would allow them to more easily monitor energy consumption in large buildings and provide incentives for business owners to make energy-efficient renovations.

CHANGE IS DIFFICULT

Not everyone likes what South Portland is doing. Online comments on news stories indicate that some people see the city’s fight against the pipeline and its effort to curb petroleum pollution as foolish, anti-business and wasting tax dollars.

Some business owners said they opposed benchmarking because they don’t want to share their energy information or be forced to upgrade their buildings. Some homeowners said they don’t want the city telling them what chemicals they can use in their yards.

Morgan and Rosenbach are convinced by the turnout at public meetings and the feedback they get on the street that the vast majority of residents support the city’s efforts. A local citizens group, Protect South Portland, actively campaigns for various sustainability initiatives and its members have contributed a significant amount of money to fight the pipeline lawsuit.

“(Opposition is) a realistic part of change,” Rosenbach said. “I totally understand people have their own perspectives. But I think most people want to live in a sustainable community. So I try to approach my job in a practical way. I try to meet people where they are and move them forward.”


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