Harpswell is exploring how to take advantage of solar power without building a solar farm on town property, pushing aside a previous plan to install solar panels at Mitchell Field.

Harpswell selectmen gave the town’s energy and technology committee the green light to look into a community solar project subscription, which allows towns to buy solar power credits from solar farms elsewhere. According to Harpswell’s Energy and Technology Committee Chair Howard Marshall, various solar groups have approached the town offering subscriptions that would give the town a roughly 15% discount on its energy bill.

Marshall didn’t know how much Harpswell’s energy bill is, but said the town’s buildings and streetlights use about 175,000 kilowatt hours annually.

“You sign up with them, agree to take a certain amount of energy based on your past usage and buy credits from them used to pay your electricity bill — Central Maine Power in this case,” Marshall told the board Thursday. “You pay 85% of the value of the credits.”

Pursuing a community solar subscription replaced the town’s previous idea of building a small solar farm on Mitchell Field.

Marshall said building your own solar farm would save the town the most money in the long run because after the initial cost of building the solar panels, “you’re basically getting free electricity.” However, but building and maintaining the panels would be expensive and a hassle for the town that doesn’t use much power. The subscription plan is more appealing to Harpswell because it saves the town money in the short term while giving it flexibility as its energy usage changes.

“The advantage that we saw was the town doesn’t have to do anything more than write a check to someone else and that process saves 15% on the electric bill and get green energy,” said Marshall. “I look at this like the convenience of leasing a car. You pay a little more, but you just write checks and you’re done.”

In 2019, the town updated the Mitchell Field master plan to allow a small solar array that would generate power equivalent to that used by the town. The solar array would be built in the upper meadow amphitheater at Mitchell Field, where the 10- to 12-foot tall panels would not block the view of the waterfront.

The board of selectmen gave the town’s energy and technology committee the green light to start planning the array under the condition that it couldn’t “adversely affect the recreation, conservation and aesthetic values of Mitchell Field,” according to the master plan updated last year.

Mitchell Field sits on 112 acres on the west side of Harpswell Neck Road. It served as a former fuel depot for the Brunswick Naval Air Station. The depot closed in 1992, and Harpswell acquired the land in 2001.

“At this point, I don’t think there’s an interest in putting a solar array, small or large, on Mitchell Field,” said Town Administrator Kristi Eiane. “There’s just not an appetite for doing that. We’ve moved away from that and there’s support for the subscription model.”

Eiane said the town may look into putting solar panels on the roof of the recycling center when it gets a new roof, but that’s not in the town’s immediate future.

Marshall said Harpswell residents can’t buy into the town’s subscription to power their homes, but homeowners can purchase their own subscription with a community solar company.

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