Solar and Energy Conservation for Maine Farms and Homes

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Teach-in panelists were, from left, Mitch Lansky, Rep. Sara Gideon, Joshua Oxley, Fortunat Mueller and Dylan Voorhees. English photo

Maine’s solar resource is comparable to that of cities such as Houston and Miami, and far better than international leaders in solar such as Germany. Yet Maine is falling far behind other U.S. regions in solar installations and job creation due to a lack of solar-friendly state policies. Maine’s successful solar rebate program expired in 2013. The 30 percent federal tax credit for solar is set to expire at the end of 2016. States will likely have to develop a sustainable model for the solar industry to grow as federal credit expires.

Two bills proposed in the Maine Legislature this year – L.D. 1073, sponsored by Senator Tom Saviello and designed to support solar on farms, and a broader L.D. 1263, sponsored by Representative Sara Gideon – combined would have cut the payback period for an agricultural solar project by an estimate of nearly 60 percent. L.D. 1073 was carried over to 2016 and faces uncertain prospects as written; L.D. 1263 was rewritten as a resolve to study alternatives to “net-metering,” which allows customers to get credit on their bill for power they put into the grid. That bill was among many vetoed by Governor Paul LePage. The Legislature overrode the veto, restoring the study.

This year MOFGA’s teach-in at the Common Ground Country Fair featured a farmer, homesteader, clean energy advocate, legislative leader and solar power installers. Moderator Sharon Tisher of MOFGA’s Public Policy Committee noted that Vermont has 20 times more solar installations than Maine does and many more jobs in solar. She cited Bill McKibben’s June 2015 New Yorker article “Power to the People,” in which he described sitting in a small Vermont home and feeling the rare emotion of hope. The couple living there, with cooperation of Green Mountain Power in financing and installation, had reduced the home’s carbon footprint by 88 percent at no upfront cost, no overall net cost and with an immediate reduction in their electric bill.

“Why isn’t this happening in Maine?” asked Tisher. “Why, conversely, did Central Maine Power (CMP) last year try to charge an extra fee on consumers who buy their electricity and have their own solar power?” Panelists addressed these and other questions.

Joshua Oxley: Farmer and Installer

After college, Joshua Oxley worked in western Europe for almost nine years. He was surprised at the high cost of fuel there and at the extent of conservation, innovation and solar use. Sweden has far less sun than we do, as does Germany, said Oxley, but even the Swedes had solar everywhere and thought it was the future.

Oxley worked for a company that made machines that made DVDs. That company started researching sputtering thin film solar cells, because silicon wafer technology was so expensive then. Solar was $10 per watt, and thin film seemed like the answer – although that hasn’t happened yet.

Next Oxley came to Maine to farm and to work in energy use in greenhouses. Central Maine Power would have charged about $20,000 to bring electricity up the 1,600-foot driveway of his MOFGA-certified organic Sol Farm in Monroe, so he stayed off-grid – first with a system that required new batteries every few years and ran a generator to pump water. The farm and house ran on that system until Oxley redid it and was able to use almost no fossil fuels for his farm, home, walk-in cooler, apprentice residence, barn, irrigation system and commercial kitchen for processing vegetables. He heats with wood and rarely runs the generator. He is altering his system again and hopes to eliminate generator use.

Oxley started SolarLogix Maine to help others with solar installations. With lower prices for solar technology, it’s now a “whole different ball game,” he said.

On a farm or homestead, a properly sized system can meet the summer needs for drip irrigation, a walk-in cooler, fans, etc., because the house uses little power in summer, and sunlight is plentiful. In winter sunlight is less abundant and the house uses most of the energy, while farming uses little.

The payback time for a grid-tied system is now only 7 to 10 years. All components are modular, and installation is fast and reliable. Being off-grid is more expensive but is good for a situation like his house or for people who want independence. Oxley sees his battery cost as his electric bill. “A battery bank might cost $4,000 and last 12 years. That’s $28 per month.”

Oxley suggested having someone help design and install a system properly, since an undersized system is a constant battle. Even with a good-sized system, Oxley said he and his family always think about the sun. If three or four cloudy days are coming, they’ll do dishes and laundry before that. “It’s not a big deal,” he said. “Commercial growers are always thinking about the weather anyway.”

SolarLogix installs grid-tied and off-grid systems, stand-alone solar water pumps for drip irrigation and livestock watering (often with cost-sharing from USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service), heat pumps and more. “The efficiency of DC pumps is amazing,” said Oxley. “You can pump so much water with so little electricity. It’s better than running wires thousands of feet underground, trying to run an AC pump.”

Mitch Lansky: Homesteader

Mitch Lansky is the author of “Beyond the Beauty Strip: Saving What’s Left of Our Forests.” His Wytopitlock homestead has been off-grid for more than four decades.

Connecting to the grid, about a mile away, would have cost $20,000 or more in 1973, when Lansky moved there. It’s now about one-third of a mile and would still cost thousands of dollars. Lacking much money, Lansky first heated with wood, lighted with kerosene, fetched water from a spring and used an outhouse. In 1982 he installed a 25-watt solar panel, one marine battery and one fluorescent light. He now has two 140-watt panels and one very old “tri-lam” (three narrow panels hooked up as one) that might produce 100 watts. Four 6-volt golf cart batteries provide storage. He plans to have six such batteries but is waiting, because mixing old batteries with new is not a good idea. Solar electricity now runs his computer, lights, water pump, washing machine and more.

Water heating takes 16 percent of typical U.S. household budgets. From May to October, Lansky’s water is solar heated with a thermosiphon system to an outdoor tank the house with washing machine hoses. In colder months a coil in his kitchen wood stove – also a cook stove – heats water.

Space heating uses about 42 percent of the typical U.S. household energy budget, he said. “I started with a well insulated house and south-facing windows. When the sun is shining, even when it’s below zero outside, our house is in the mid-70s and has enough mass to hold that heat for many hours.” He also uses around 1-1/2 cords of hardwood as supplemental heat in winter, plus around 1/2 cord of junk wood in spring and fall for cooking and water heating.

Americans use 35 percent of their household energy for electricity. Lansky started with compact fluorescent bulbs and then switched to LEDs, which use a fraction of the energy to get more light than incandescent. An inexpensive pump pumps water. Faucets have aerators to cut water use, and the shower head restricts water flow to about 1 gallon per minute but delivers a good spray. The indoor composting toilet isn’t flushed, so uses no electricity, except for a tiny fan.

When Lansky’s propane refrigerator died last summer, he made a super-insulated pantry where he now has a SunDanzer refrigerator. It runs on 4 volts and uses 100 watts per day at 70 F. The pantry stays at 60 F or less, so the refrigerator uses less electricity. The pantry is also a great place to store squash and onions. Root crops go into root cellars – although our increasingly warm falls are making that option more challenging.

A horizontal-access washing machine uses 100 watt-hours and 9 gallons of water per load. He can do three loads on a sunny day and not worry about electricity use or water pumping.

For air conditioning, “I open the windows at night and close them in the day.” External venetian blinds let light in but stop direct sunlight, as do awnings or overhangs. When the temperature outside is 90, the house is 15 degrees cooler.

“I wasn’t trying to emulate the average American household,” said Lansky. “My first step was to ensure that I need as little a system as possible. While solar energy is free, the equipment to capture it isn’t and has an energy and environmental footprint.”

Before hooking up to solar, he said, spend your money reducing your needs. “You get a much bigger return on investment. For me the solution isn’t to see more and more solar panels going up but to see fossil fuel power plants close down … The biggest bang for the buck is to look at the waste in production, transmission and use, and to cut the waste first.”

Fortunat Mueller: Installer

Fortunat Mueller, P.E., is a cofounder and partner of ReVision Energy, based in Liberty and Portland, Maine. ReVision has done more than 3,000 solar installations since opening in 2003. Mueller is bullish about the future of solar energy. “Your first solar panel is sort of the gateway drug,” he said. “It’s hard to go back to fossil fuels after that.”

Since most renewables, especially wind and solar, are widely distributed, they will promote social equity and social justice, Mueller added, because they’re not concentrated as are fossil fuels.

The Solutions Project, said Mueller, calculated how each state could achieve 100 percent renewable energy by 2050. In Maine the transition will save an average of $1,900 per person per year in 2050, just in energy savings. Total dollar savings considering reduced health care and environmental damage will be $4,100 per person in Maine in 2050. Only 0.06 percent of the state’s land area will be required for the switch. The number of jobs created in which a person is employed for 40 consecutive years includes 17,900 construction jobs and 12,900 operation jobs. All the world’s electricity needs could be generated from solar alone by a 150-square-mile area, said Mueller.

Obstacles include entrenched interests invested in the status quo, including oil cartels and the fossil fuel industrial complex – and locally, the utilities. “A century ago,” said Mueller, “we made a deal with the utilities saying you bring power to everybody in Maine, and we’ll arrange a monopoly in exchange. It was a good idea at the time, but in the process we created a monster – a massive, investor-owned monopoly – that is difficult to rein in. They have an unparalleled lobbying presence in Augusta and a direct line to the Blaine House.” Lawyers who worked for the utilities now work for the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) and vice versa.

But “it’s really hard to keep a good idea like this down,” said Mueller. Some states have started telling utilities to figure out how to increase renewables and energy efficiency. ReVision gets 500 to 700 inquiries per month from potential customers and has hundreds of people who want to return to Maine seeking employment, and ReVision may represent about half of Maine’s solar installers. Efficiency Maine lists others.

Representative Sara Gideon: Legislative Leader

Assistant Majority Leader Sara Gideon of Freeport is serving her second term in the Maine House of Representatives. She is a past member of the Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Energy, Utilities and Technology, where she worked to lower energy costs, encourage increased energy efficiency and promote clean and renewable energy to capitalize on Maine’s natural resources and build a clean-energy economy. She serves on the Legislative Council.

Gideon is our hero, said Tisher. “She sponsored and pushed the bill that changed one word in a piece of legislation that restored $38 million for energy efficiency funding in Maine.” When the governor vetoed the bill, both houses unanimously overrode the veto.

“I entered the legislature with one goal,” said Gideon: “to create public policy through the lens of a parent and thinking about what the future holds and my role as a steward in this place.” Energy is an obvious area to make a difference, she said, “and solar energy, specifically, I think is one of our greatest opportunities for growth.”

Maine now produces about 12 megawatts of solar energy. Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont far exceed that, largely due to the certainty their policies give to consumers looking at installing solar or buying into a community solar project. Lacking significant solar policies in Maine, grassroots efforts have emerged. Solarize Freeport has enabled 43 homes and business to install solar through bulk purchases, significantly reducing costs.

Community solar, in which a group of people build a solar project together, could bring change, but Maine’s PUC rules allow no more than 10 accounts to co-own such projects, limiting their effectiveness.

“We attempted to change that a number of times,” said Gideon. “We are definitely stalled … for political reasons, and there is a partisan divide regarding solar policy – which is interesting, because across the country that is not the case. The idea of generating energy from an abundant resource that is essentially free is something we should all embrace. It gives us energy security and is good for our earth. I am optimistic that the stalled policy will change.”

Mueller said the utilities asked for the 10-entity limit in order to limit their administrative burden, but dealing with ten 10-person solar farms is no more of a burden than dealing with one 100-person solar farm. For five years after that rule, said Mueller, nobody built new projects. ReVision did one last year “only because we were willing to lose a ton of money doing it.” Gideon said that 10 Freeport residents are putting together a solar farm.

Asked if the PUC rule could be circumvented by tying together individual, 10-owner solar farms, Mueller said ReVision had intended to do that. “The community solar farm we built in Edgecomb had plans for a second phase … with an additional 10 members. We were told by CMP that if we were to put in an application for that, they would litigate the question.”

This year the legislature directed the PUC to work with all stakeholders to see if Maine might create a model program for compensating people in a fair and beneficial way for installing solar power. This stakeholder process means the public has a chance to provide comments this fall and early winter. (People who want to advocate for solar in that process can contact groups like NRCM or ReVision for more information.) The PUC will report to the legislature, which will decide whether or not to implement a policy.

Gideon encouraged people to testify before the energy committee next session and to call their legislators any time to find out where they stand on solar and urge them to support solar bills next session.

Dylan Voorhees: Clean Energy Advocate

Dylan Voorhees is the Natural Resources Council of Maine (NRCM) clean energy director. About the current, dramatic solar revolution, Voorhees said, “You see a piece of it in Maine, but across the country it is hard to overstate how revolutionary the changes in solar technology and markets have been in just the past few years.” The price to install solar on a roof now is half what it was five years ago.

“Oil and natural gas are commodities,” said Voorhees. “Solar is a technology, so trends in prices are revolutionary. A completed solar project is going up on someone’s roof every three minutes. Anything you thought you knew about solar – now is a good time to look again.”

Maine, however, is falling far behind, said Voorhees, because of a lack of policies creating a foundation for more people to access solar, to overcome barriers, and to create stability and predictability so that businesses can grow, our solar market can grow, and more homeowners can have access.

Having solar panels connected to the grid benefits that homeowner and those without solar, because we all share in the electricity grid and the cost of maintaining it. The Maine PUC found that the value of 1 kw-hour of electricity entering the grid from rooftop solar is worth staggeringly more than the customer is paid for it. “Maine has a policy called net metering,” said Voorhees. “If you produce more electricity than you need at that moment, your meter will run backward, and you’ll get compensated at the rate that you buy your power.” (In Maine credits are banked from month to month with utilities. The utility takes back credits that still exist after 12 months.) “When you look at the numbers, you’re providing more value to your neighbors and other ratepayers than you’re getting.”

Voorhees encouraged challenging the utility monopoly by putting power on your own roof and becoming engaged politically.

During the question and answer period, MOFGA member Nancy Chandler suggested policies, including building codes encouraging south-facing homes, to promote using solar energy to heat homes and water, not just to generate electricity. Representative Gideon said that Maine’s building codes were scaled back by the 125th Legislature. “We’re fighting to keep the building codes we have in place now,” she said, adding, “Change may happen after the next three years.” Mueller said education can work, rather than legislation. Voorhees said that in parts of Southern California, some 35 percent of new homes are being built with solar electric, hot water or both.

Lansky said that with intermittent energy resources such as wind and solar, people have to change their behavior or have storage or backup energy. He noted that coal is about 33 percent efficient and natural gas about 41 percent, so most of the energy produced is waste heat. Of U.S. electricity production, 8 or 9 percent is through co-generation – decentralized systems that use “waste heat” to heat water, spaces, etc. “That’s 80 percent efficient,” said Lansky. “If we switch from the 8 or 9 percent to 20 percent, that should lead to 600 million fewer tons of carbon being emitted into the atmosphere, which equals 69 million cars taken off the road. Solar is part of the picture, but if all you’re looking at is the number of solar panels and windmills, you’re going to have renewable energy ‘in addition to,’ instead of ‘instead of.’ We want to make sure our system is ‘instead of,’ so we need a more comprehensive look … Ten percent of losses are from transmission – from big, inefficient power plants – and then we’re using it inefficiently.” For example, electricity is said to be some 98 percent efficient in being converted to heat, but by the time it arrives at its destination, 63 to 70 percent of the original energy has been lost.”

Regarding batteries, Mueller said the battery development curve now looks like the solar development curve a decade ago, with incredible changes in performance and pricing – much of it funded by car company R&D, especially Tessla. “If you can buy a 10 kw battery for $3,000 that has a 10-year life expectancy, then calculating how much solar you should put in and whether you should go off the grid changes dramatically. That cost is about half what you spend on lead-acid batteries and for a life that should be two to three times as long. It’s still a ways away from making a meaningful difference, but it’s starting to scare the utilities in a way that solar doesn’t, because they know that solar itself is challenging in December and January.”

Voorhees predicted that in 10 years, many of us will have electric cars, which means we will effectively have a large battery plugged in at home that can act as storage for the grid. We now spend 40 or 50 percent of our energy dollars on gasoline for vehicles – Maine’s largest source of carbon emissions.

Tisher asked how Green Mountain Power differs from CMP. Mueller said Green Mountain Power “decided long ago that renewables would be a big part of their investment, that it’s good for the rate-payers, and eventually … for their shareholders. They have incredible leadership with great vision. They are a certified B corporation – their stakeholders are not just their investors but the community of people they serve: the people of Vermont and the planet. They have written into their bylaws a stakeholder accountability program that is different from most industrial utilities.” Voorhees added that utilities do what the PUC tells them to do, and the PUC eventually does what legislators tell it to do – so elect legislators who share your values.

Asked how we put the “public” back into the PUC, Voorhees said our elected governor appoints PUC commissioners, and legislators confirm them, so the public gets a chance to be heard during elections and afterward when they communicate with their elected officials. And, he added, let the public advocate on the PUC hear from you occasionally.

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