Maine's First 'Community Solar' Project Generating Green for Investors

Apr 22, 2015

This story is the second installment of Beyond 350: Confronting Climate Change.

SOUTH PARIS, Maine - The sun unexpectedly popped out in parts of Maine today on what was forecast to be a rather gray and gloomy day. On this Earth Day, it was especially welcomed by a small, but growing, number of people who are making a philosophical and financial commitment to solar power.

Their own rooftops might not be appropriate for harnessing the sun's rays but their friends' and neighbors' rooftops are. And so they are investing in what's known as "community solar."

Russ and Judy Florenz say they like to do their part for the environment. They want to keep their carbon footprints on the planet small. Now in their 60's, they grow much of their own food in a vegetable garden on their farm in South Paris. They also raise broiler chickens and beef. And when it comes to energy, they try to conserve.

"We live in a fairly small house and we heat - you know, we're as well insulated as we can be," says Judy. "We don't use a lot of electricity. We don't have TVs in every bedroom."

"We do our little bit and contribute as we can," Russ adds.

One of those contributions is to host the first community solar project in Maine. It was completed last fall.

"I think this barn didn't have quite as good an angle as the barns up there, but it's still pretty close to ideal," Judy says.

Just below the Florenz's house is an old, metal chicken barn in a large field. It's about 300 feet long. And on the south side of the roof are 150 solar panels. The project is co-owned by eight other people who live in different parts of southern Maine, and who, for whatever reason, can't put solar panels on their own homes.
 

  Currently in Maine there's a limit of 10 people who can share in a solar project, although there's a proposal to raise that number to 50 or more. The members' shares were each calculated according to their regular electricity consumption. Russ and Judy own an 8 percent share that cost them about $8,000.

"Like any solar project, your primary recovery of your investment is through energy savings," says Fortunat Mueller. Mueller is co-founder of ReVision Energy in Portland, which developed the project. "So, you know, you buy a share in the solar array and over time your electric bill goes down because you're generating some fraction or all of your electricity from a solar farm up on the hill."

Russ and Judy expect to be free of electric bills in about 12 years. In the meantime, they do need to pay Central Maine Power for a delivery charge and a line fee. "We are sympathetic to their situation," Russ says, "because we appreciate having electricity on cloudy days and we know that the infrastructure has to be there."

Essentially, they're sharing the sun on the grid for a credit. The result is they've had to get more diligent about reading their CMP bill and figuring out how much electricity they've consumed.

"We get credit on our bill, and if we use the whole amount that month then we pay less to CMP," Judy says. "If we don't use it then we can bank it for months when it's not as sunny. You can keep it on for a year and if you don't use it in that year's time then it just gets eaten up by the grid. It's gone."

"Our company supports renewables - our parent company is one of the biggest renewable developers in the world," says CMP spokeswoman Gail Rice.

Rice points out that community solar projects are subsidized by other customers and she says that's a concern. "Our estimates indicate that people who do not own solar generation will be subsidizing solar customers to the tune of about $55 million per year by the year 2022, and that's a huge hardship on a lot of our customers who are poor and who already have trouble paying their bills."

Supporters of solar power say, in the face of climate change, there will need to be a paradigm shift in energy production, where it comes from and how it's generated. And the markets, they say, will respond accordingly.

For now, residential and commercial solar is growing by leaps and bounds around the country. Interest in community solar projects is also on the rise, including here in Maine.

"We're at the point where we're just getting ready to close on all the paperwork on the project," says David Nutt, one of the nine owner-members of a planned community solar installation on an old dairy farm in Edgecomb. He says his investment was expensive - more than $10,000. But he expects to save 80 percent of his electric bill in the first year.

"The other side of the equation is the production of solar energy versus the production of fossil fuel energy," Nutt says, "and we feel it's really important to do this."

Another community solar project is tentatively planned for Bar Harbor, where members of the Town Council envision leasing out roof space at a public works site. The plan is subject to local residents' approval.

Fortunat Mueller, of ReVision Energy, says what's clear is that Maine has the ability to produce a significant amount of solar power. The challenge is finding the political will to make it happen.

Beyond 350 is made possible by The Doree Taylor Charitable Foundation.