Solar panels – one at a time- begin to re-map MDI’s energy profile …


SOMESVILLE – Sept. 5, 2020 – Lily Crikelair, Ayano Ishimura and Matilda Allen, students at MDI High School, feel the impact of climate change on a daily basis. Fifty years from now, when they will be in their Sixties, what will the world be like?

When I was their age, I felt the all-consuming fear of the Vietnam War. I did not want to die young. Neither do they.

For them, climate change has the here-and-now urgency of an existential crisis.

They live in a place where lobstermen keep tabs on the fast rising temperatures in the Gulf of Maine and what that portends for their future livelihood. They could sense the disquieting concerns expressed by classmates about the intemperate patterns changing the ecology of MDI. They see residents installing air conditioning for the first time ever.

So they took matters into their own hands. As interns for “A Climate to Thrive,” the non-profit organization started in 2016 to make MDI energy independent by 2030, they took on the task to change Bar Harbor’s ordinance to allow free-standing solar.

Lily Crikelair was the project leader on drafting the proposed Bar Harbor ordinance

“Currently, the town of Bar Harbor does not allow free-standing solar as a principal use for any land within the town,” they wrote. “We would like the town to make addressing this problem a priority so that we can promote renewable energy and financial savings by developing regulations to allow for ground-mounted solar facilities with onsite battery systems.”

Ayano Ishimura: The solar ordinance project was one of my favorite projects I worked on during the internship. Not only did I learn almost everything you need to know about solar energy, I also learned a lot about local town government and how to prepare/write/present an ordinance proposal to put forth to a town council (especially as a youth member).

They took it to the Bar Harbor Town Council and on Aug. 4, in an unanimous vote, the council approved drafting an ordinance to put it to a town-wide vote in June 2021.

MDI High School has been stirring activism ever since A Climate to Thrive formed in 2016. What better segment of the local citizenry to articulate the mission than the most impacted generation?

Step by step, solar panel by panel, ACTT chipped away at the obstacles and skepticism. The year 2019 was a big leap forward when MDI Regional High School became the first in the state to become 100 percent reliant on self generation. Also, the Town of Tremont embraced a two-step strategy – build an array of solar panels to make town offices self-sustaining followed by more solar panels on the landfill. Southwest Harbor is following with 850 kilowatts of electricity to be generated by panels at its transfer station.

By the end of next year, the island of Mount Desert will have almost 22 percent of its electricity generated by solar panels.

That is a staggering amount of renewable energy for any municipality – not to mention four of them on the same island of 10,000 year-round folks.

Almost invisible to us as we tend to the checklist of daily human activity – shopping, cooking, recreating – is the progress made to transform MDI’s reliance on fossil fuels. A solar project here, another there – quietly but inexorably, the island is changing rapidly to a fossil fuel-free zone.

I drive by Beech Hill Farm every day and fail to notice the solar panels on the roof (see photo above) – until I started writing this article. When were they installed?

The island of Mount Desert consumed 16 megawatts of electricity in 2015, according to the executive director of ACTT.

By the end of 2021, said Lawson Wulsin, MDI will have 3.7 megawatts generated by solar panels. The addition of new solar arrays at the Tremont Community Solar Farm will add 400 kilowatts, and the solar farm project at the Southwest Harbor transfer station will add another 850.

“Essentially, what that means is that when the sun is shining, the island will be producing 21.7% of the energy it’s consuming on a typical summer day (when consumption and generation are at their highest),” said Wulsin.

The effort on MDI has drawn attention from the highest tier of the green movement but received very little attention from traditional media … But here is a good article

Occasionally, an influential pol takes notice – like Sara Gideon a few weeks ago when she did a photo op at the Tremont municipal solar site. That certainly caught my attention. I dug deeper and learned that a group of island activists concluded in 2016 that MDI could own its fate rather than wait for the bureaucracies in Washington and Augusta to give us their blessing on climate management.

They gave birth to ACCT with the goal of achieving fossil fuel independence.

Tremont will launch a second project this year – a community farm next to the transfer station which will be the first in Maine to test a “subscription model” much like how current utilities work, as opposed to the prevailing “ownership” model, which is more like a condo arrangement. If you live in the Versant (Emera) territory, you may apply to be one of the 100 or so member-owners of the Southwest Harbor project. Here is the link for more information

The town of Mount Desert’s lack of engagement with ACTT is palpable. The three other towns are major stakeholders in the 2030 initiative. Bar Harbor Councilman Matthew Hochman pointed out that Bar Harbor was the first to convert a municipal building to solar about five years ago.  

The 16-megawatt baseline established from 2015 usage is a moving target. With all the summer residents staying much longer than expected because of Covid-19, who knows what this year’s consumption will be as they try to heat their insulation-free cottages with electricity? Every elementary school in MDI is reporting a spike in enrollment as traditional summer families stay.

The demand for electricity is a good thing. It shows the promise of a year-round community, but we need to align those needs with a special promise. MDI can be free of fossil fuel reliance by 2030. That would really be something.

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