Instead of relying on school-specific solar panels, like these at East End Community School, the Portland School Department is hoping to partner with a larger coalition to buy less expensive solar energy from an off-site farm. Courtesy photo

PORTLAND — The School Department is planning a switch to solar energy to meet most of its power needs.

The department spends just under $1 million for the 3,500 kilowatts of electricity it uses yearly, according to Facilities Director Stephen Stilphen, and a switch to solar could shave $50,000 off that bill.

The hope, he said, is to have at least 70% of the district’s power needs provided by solar energy, and perhaps as much as 80%.

In late August the School Board approved a resolution calling on Superintendent Xavier Botana to make the move to solar a priority.

A coalition of students from the city’s three public high schools, which calls itself SolaRISE Portland, first advocated this past winter for the School Department to “take concrete action to negate the effects of climate change.” SolaRISE founder Siri Pierce at Casco Bay High School said in February said the organization hopes the city’s schools eventually become carbon neutral.

Originally the students wanted the School Board to approve installing solar arrays at multiple schools. But that proposal was expensive, with an estimated price tag of about $5 million.


Now, the department is looking to purchase power from large solar farms. The School Department believes working with a large-scale solar provider is the most efficient and economical way to make the switch, Stilphen told The Forecaster this week.

He’s optimistic there will be a lot of interest from large-scale providers, who are now rushing to take advantage of a key federal tax credit and new laws passed in Maine this past legislative session that make it easier for developers to build solar farms in the state.

Stilphen said the School Department has long had an interest in solar power, but the issue was how to make the change without requiring a large capital investment. “These solar farms can have a much bigger impact and can make it easier and less expensive for us to reduce our carbon footprint,” he said.

Stilphen said several schools in the district already have solar panels, but they don’t reduce the overall electric bill by much. It makes more sense to partner with a larger group of entities seeking, like the University of Maine System and L.L. Bean, to buy solar power together, he said.

With a power purchase agreement, Stilphen said all 17 schools in the district could benefit from solar power instead of just a few.

Troy Moon, Portland’s sustainability coordinator, told The Forecaster the city already manages the School Department’s electricity accounts, and that’s why it made sense for the two to work together on reaching their common energy goals.

He said the city and School Department are working with Competitive Energy Services LLC, a Portland-based company that already helps manage their combined electricity needs, to oversee the request for proposals process and ensure that they’re getting the best deal possible from interested solar power providers.

Moon said the city now pays ReVision Energy 10.5 cents per kilowatt-hour for solar power from a 4-acre array built on a city-owned landfill off Ocean Avenue. That project provides about 3% of the city’s energy needs, he said.

But with the possibility of much larger solar farms coming online over the next year, Moon is hopeful that cost per kilowatt-hour will be reduced while the percentage of power the city and schools can purchase will exponentially increase.

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