As Storms Batter Electric Grid, More Mainers Consider Cutting The Cable

Mar 5, 2018

For those who dream of living “off the grid,” the motivation might be to leave smaller carbon footprint or to avoid the prohibitive cost of running utility lines hundreds of feet to a home off-the-beaten path.

Some solar panel installers say they are additionally receiving an increasing number of inquiries from homeowners who have had it with lengthy and repeated power outages.

Another week and another nor’easter is bearing down on Maine, prompting thousands of families to restock essential supplies, get out the snow shovels and monitor the forecast.

In an era of climate change, weather forecasts often call for more intense storms. Those can translate to high winds — and if the winds are accompanied by freezing rain, the combination can equate to prolonged power outages.

New advances in solar electric panels and price drops for off-the-grid energy systems are prompting more Mainers to consider cutting the cord to the local power company in favor of a more independent lifestyle.

Chuck Piper says phone calls to his Sundog Solar installation company in Searsport increase with every major power outage.

Dan Piper (left) and his father, Chuck, with a solar panel they sell at their Sundog Solar shop in Searsport.
Credit A.J. Higgins / Maine Public

“They’ve tripled since we went into business,” he says. “People are finding out that we offer the service and we’re getting calls from all over the state. So as more and more people find out about us and the fact that we do support this type of a system, we’re getting more calls.”

Piper works with customers to develop year-round power systems that cost about $12,000 to start and top out at $40,000 or more, depending on the homeowner’s needs. Using solar panels, a battery energy storage system, power meters, charge controllers and a backup generator, an off-the-grid system allows homeowners to call up their power when they need it.

Piper’s son and business partner Dan Piper says customers like having control over the electricity that powers their lives. He says that was never more evident than after a “bomb cyclone” hit Maine last October, leaving more than half a million people in the dark.

“Right after the big storm that we had in the fall, we got a whole bunch of calls from people who wanted battery-based backup so, yeah, there’s a huge drive for it and people want independence and they want security,” he says. “And these systems allow you to have a lot more control of what’s happening with their electricity. You aren’t depending on that line that’s feeding to you and when that line goes down, you’re not getting fed anymore.”

John Hyke of Prospect with one of his home’s solar panels.
Credit A.J. Higgins / Maine Public

That means that when bad weather power outages strike, off-the-grid homeowners such as John Hyke of Prospect don’t have wait for tree crews to remove branches from a downed power line. Instead, the lights stay on thanks to the setup in his basement, where power inverters change battery-based direct current electricity into alternating current.

Hyke is something of an off-the-grid pioneer. He purchased his first solar panels back in 1980 when he was building a home for himself on Heegan Mountain in Prospect. His house is about 8,000 feet away from the closest power line and Hyke says he didn’t want to pay the cost of running power poles across his property, so he chose solar panels out of necessity.

Over the years his system has evolved. Recent upgrades allow him to enjoy all the normal comforts of home: freezers, radiant heat flooring and television, just like his grid-connected neighbors. At first, Hyke says, he worried that his lack of knowledge about electricity would be a challenge.

“I’m not a real electrically competent person and I’ve always in the back of my mind had this problem about what if things aren’t working properly,” he says. “But I’ve got to tell you, it seems to work properly all the time. There’s isn’t much that can go wrong — as a matter of fact nothing has gone wrong here in all these years. It has all just run.”

Deep-cycle solar storage batteries.
Credit A.J. Higgins / Maine Public

Forty-one miles away, Jon Garrity is enjoying a new off-the-grid home that he constructed in Palermo. Like Hyke, Garrity says he was facing prohibitive costs to run power to his property. And, like Hyke, Garrity says he has been surprised at the lack of maintenance that the system requires.

“About the only thing that I do is every seven weeks or so, I check out the batteries and have to put in some distilled water,” he says. “That takes me about 20-25 minutes to do and it’s good to go.”

According to the Solar Foundation in Washington, D.C., Maine’s solar industry continues to show growth. The organization ranked Maine 27th in the nation on a per-capita basis for the number of reported solar-related jobs in 2016.