Tom Bell wanted to save money on his electric bill, but he also wanted to support renewable energy in Maine. His historic house in Yarmouth’s tree-lined village isn’t conducive to siting solar panels. So his interest was piqued in the summer of 2020, when he and hundreds of thousands of other Mainers received a solicitation from one of the many community solar farms being proposed across Maine.

In August of 2020, he signed a contract with Nexamp, a Boston-based solar developer working on about 30 community solar projects in Maine.

But two months ago, Bell got an unwelcome follow-up email from Nexamp. It said construction on the solar farm he signed up for in Auburn was delayed and it wasn’t expected to go live until the end of 2022.

A landmark 2019 law meant to encourage and expand solar development in Maine set off an avalanche of project proposals. That in turn triggered extensive marketing campaigns to sign up Mainers for shares of the projects’ power.

But now, thousands of Mainers who already have waited a year or so are learning that another year may go by before they can see any benefits. The setback has put a bit of a damper on the sunny excitement that embodies community solar. It has left people such as Bell deciding whether to cancel their contracts, try to find new offers or just wait it out.

“I’m disappointed but patient,” Bell, a former Portland Press Herald reporter, said recently. “I think it will be a good deal for me, and for society, to have more energy produced from solar.”

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Bell’s patience is appreciated by Nexamp, which is trying to manage expectations in an unpredictable environment.

“We’re fortunate because customers have been understanding about what’s happening and what’s in and out of our control,” said Allan Telio, Nexamp’s senior vice president for community solar. “On the flip side, I know they are disappointed and anxious for projects to come online, to see lower bills and support the growth of clean energy in Maine.”

What is happening, and why?

Many Mainers recall the uproar last winter, after Maine’s growing solar industry complained that Central Maine Power belatedly began telling solar farm developers that their projects were causing voltage-related problems at substations that in some instances could require multimillion-dollar upgrades.

CMP pointed out that more than 600 projects were seeking to hook up to its distribution system and said the sudden demand had caused an unprecedented logjam. Soon after, CMP said it had found less expensive ways to handle the interconnections, but not before Gov. Janet Mills called for the Public Utilities Commission to investigate. That review is continuing, although CMP and the solar industry are in settlement talks that may lead to a resolution.

The issues responsible for Nexamp’s delays, however, are slightly different and separate from CMP’s over-voltage concerns.

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The problem is centered on the impact on the region’s transmission system, if multiple solar farms with intermittent generation are connected to an individual substation. Because this could threaten the system’s stability, ISO-New England, the region’s grid operator, requires so-called cluster studies to determine what upgrades may be needed.

These cluster studies take time and require scarce engineering resources. The outcomes could require developers to share in millions of dollars of upgrade costs. In some cases, unexpected high costs would be likely to cancel projects.

“The cluster studies are impacting a significant portion of the industry,” said Kaitlin Kelly O’Neill, northeast regional director at the Coalition for Community Solar Access. “There are hundreds of projects waiting for completion of these studies.”

O’Neill said Nexamp delays are more visible than those at some other companies because it develops, operates and markets its own projects. Other companies may develop farms and then sell them to operators or hire out subscription services and billing.

In any case, O’Neill said, the uncertainty caused by delays and the need to communicate what’s happening to eager customers are presenting a public relations challenge for the burgeoning industry.

“Customers were expecting to receive savings at a certain point in time,” she said. “Now that’s being pushed out.”

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‘IT’S HARD TO BUILD TRUST’

Subscriber-based community solar represents a new business model in Maine.

There is no cost to subscribe. Contract lengths vary, from month-to-month to 20 years. Cancellation terms vary, too; many have no fee but require a specific time notice, such as 90 days.

Unlike a provider in the state’s competitive electricity supply marketplace, a community solar company applies a credit to the kilowatt-hour charges on the monthly utility bill.

Discounts in Maine range from 10 percent to 15 percent, based on market competition and proprietary financial calculations. These discounts don’t apply to fixed charges on the bill, or to the distribution rates that utilities such as CMP and Versant charge to deliver the power over their wires.

The credit reduces the payment a customer owes to their  electricity provider. For the majority of Maine households and small businesses, that provider is Maine’s standard offer, default supply service, overseen at the PUC.

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Based on bids received at the PUC this fall, standard offer rates are due to jump more than 80 percent next year for customers in CMP and Versant Power’s service areas. Most community solar subscribers’ 10 percent to 15 percent savings will remain the same, just applied to the higher rate.

But all this is confusing to customers, many of whom still can’t remember that CMP and Versant no longer generate power, or are struggling to understand where community solar fits in the picture.

“It’s definitely not helpful,” said Alan Robertson, senior director of project development at BlueWave Solar, another active developer in Maine. “It’s hard to build trust in a new market. This doesn’t build trust in solar being the wave of the future, especially with residential customers.”

Delay leads to attrition, Robertson noted. People sell homes. Renters move. People lose interest and some cancel contracts.

That’s what Paul Hogan did. He had signed up with Nexamp in September of 2020, for his home in Kennebunkport.

“I wanted to help move us off carbon,” he said. “I have solar panels, but they don’t produce enough for my needs. This seemed like a cost-effective way to do that, at no risk to me.”

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But after getting a one-year delay letter from Nexamp in October, Hogan canceled his contract.

Hogan had received offers from other companies; he knew other projects were pending. While voting in November’s election, he happened to see a marketer who was pitching community solar projects by Syncarpha Solar of New York, which is developing 11 projects in Maine. It offered a 15 percent discount for a project in Augusta.

Hogan signed contracts with Syncarpha for his primary home and a seasonal home in Bethel. The project was scheduled to go live between October 1 and December 1. Despite an inquiry earlier this week, he hasn’t been able to get an update on the status of the project.

BIGGER PLAYERS WAIT, TOO

The cluster study delays are affecting larger customers, too, but they are used to longer time horizons.

BlueWave is working on 21 solar farms in Maine, nearly all for commercial or institutional customers. A BlueWave affiliate, Perch Energy, has been handling subscriptions and billing. They’ve been communicating with energy brokers who work with these large customers, such as the MaineHealth hospital chain. Nexamp also is building solar farms that are supported by MaineHealth contracts.

Taken together, O’Neill said, the delays should be seen as growing pains that will take time to work through. And they’re not unique to Maine, she said. Cluster studies have set back solar projects in Massachusetts as well.

In Maine, utilities are responsible for getting the cluster studies done, and the industry is working with CMP and Versant to nail down timelines, O’Neill said.

“We just want some certainty, so we can tell people how long it’s going to take,” she said.

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