Solar energy provided all the electricity needed to power a service area of more than 11,000 customers in northern Maine for a few hours in early May, marking a first in the large, sparsely populated region that relies on a Canadian grid for its electricity.

Unlike other regions in the state that are linked to the New England electricity grid, the Fort Kent area in northernmost Maine is connected to New Brunswick Power Corp. The region’s dominant characteristics are “electrical isolation, large geographic size, small electric demand and modest population,” said a May 2023 outlook by the Northern Maine Independent System Administrator, which runs the northern Maine transmission system and electric power markets in Aroostook and Washington counties.

The combined population of Aroostook and Washington counties was fewer than 99,000 in 2022.

Northern Maine is unique, the outlook said, because most of its generation is from renewable resources. Solar accounts for a little less than 10% of the region’s 109-megawatt capacity, with the bulk coming from wind and hydropower, according to the independent system administrator.

Versant Power, the region’s transmission and distribution utility, said that since 2020, it has worked with developers to connect more than 140 megawatts of solar energy to the grid and has processed more than 1,780 applications to connect renewable energy generators to the distribution grid in the same four-year period. It’s working with the owners of more than 400 projects to integrate 382 MW of renewable energy in northern and eastern Maine, exceeding total demand for electricity in the region.

Versant said it expects similar energy conditions in the Fort Kent area on sunny days in the spring and fall when conditions are best for solar energy production and mild temperatures drive down electricity demand.

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The ability to rely on the sun’s rays for power – even for a few hours – is partly the result of a decentralization of power generation that allows smaller producers to feed electricity into the grid.

“Reimagining the purpose of our grid, built originally for the one-way delivery of power, is no easy task in a rural state with diverse needs,” Versant President John Flynn said.

In contrast with the electric grid’s original, one-way economic model – sending power from the utility to its customers – decentralized forms of energy production, known as “distributed generation,” are increasingly producing power that is sent to a utility, which in turn supplies its customers with electricity.

“I think it’s a great day for the state of Maine to generate its own electricity and not have to go out of state,” said Bob Cleaves, co-founder and principal investor of Dirigo Solar, which feeds power to Versant.

The Portland-based solar developer has three projects in development at Limestone, Masardis and Sherman, Cleaves said. Begun in 2015, Dirigo has invested $150 million in Maine and operates seven solar projects, he said, generating more than 100 MW of solar that’s cheaper for Versant customers than the state’s standard offer, which is the default supply.

Dirigo sells its power to Versant for 3.5 cents a kilowatt hour, and customers pay 7 cents – significantly less than the 11.3-cent per kWh standard offer.

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Cleaves credited a 2019 Maine law for the expansion of solar power in the state by broadening incentives in a policy known as net energy billing. The incentives have attracted strong interest from solar developers while drawing criticism for being too generous at the expense of electricity ratepayers who subsidize the program.

“As a result, there was, until 2019, very little home-grown load,” Cleaves said, referring to electricity consumption.

The expansion of community solar projects – so-called solar farms serving as alternatives to rooftop solar that’s ill-suited for sparsely populate areas – allowed Aroostook County to develop its own power, he said. The number of solar farms in Aroostook County now exceeds the electricity load, promising to produce more 100% solar power, he said.

“You’ll see more of these events,” Cleaves said.


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