Is Community Solar Right For You?
New community solar farms, coupled with more affordable ways to opt-in, are making it easier than ever for Mainers to soak up the sun.
TEXT BY SARA ANNE DONNELLY
PHOTOGRAPHED BY MARK FLEMING
Freeport’s Maine Idyll Solar Farm consists of ten tidy rows of 364 glinting solar panels rising out of knee-high crabgrass along I-295. Since 2015, Fred Farber and eight others have owned this impressive hardware display, which supplies 80 percent of the electricity needed to power his Falmouth home and Nissan Leaf. Farber paid the project’s developer, South Portland’s ReVision Energy, about $3,400/kilowatt to own six kilowatts of the farm’s output for the duration of the 25-year lease he signed with property owner Maine Idyll Motor Court —maybe for longer, if the panels hold up. He can take his share with him if he moves within Central Maine Power’s service area or sell it if he moves out of range. His electricity bills have dwindled to as low as $22 per month and, by 2027, he expects to recoup his investment, a lag time he’s ok with. “There’s a significant amount of, as my brother the economist would say, psychic income associated with doing this,” Farber says. “Burning dead dinosaurs is bad for all of us.”
Pioneered in Colorado, community solar farms like Idyll allow renters and homeowners who can’t plop solar panels on their roofs or properties — due to a lack of southern exposure, for example — to tap into a renewable energy source and receive credits on their utility bills. Lower panel prices and a 2019 state law allowing groups of any size to join a solar farm, previously capped at nine, mean the cost of buying in is coming down. ReVision cofounder Fortunat Mueller says his company has about 120 members in 14 small residential farms with buy-in costs similar to Farber’s. Those who join one of its 100- to 250-member farms in Vassalboro and two other pending locations, slated to be online later this year and next, can expect to spend less: about $2,900/kilowatt for an average nine-kilowatt share, money they’ll recoup in about 11 years. ReVision is also exploring subscription models, which had been effectively banned under Governor Paul LePage’s administration.
Under a subscription plan, customers don’t own the panels but buy energy credits from a community solar farm developer that offset their monthly electricity bills. Massachusetts-based Nexamp, which operates 100 residential and commercial community solar farms in six states, is leading the subscription effort in Maine, with digital ads and direct mailers offering 15 percent monthly discounts on energy credits for Central Maine Power customers. Pay Nexamp $85 a month, for example, and find $100 knocked off your monthly CMP bill.
“It’s hard to say ‘no risk’ because people get suspicious when you say that,” Nexamp spokesperson Keith Hevenor says. But there’s no upfront cost or contract or cancellation fees. The company profits from the difference between the cost of producing power and the value of the credit it gets from the utility for supplying power to the grid (as well as federal tax credits, the sale of renewable energy credits on the open market, and municipal property tax exemptions). Nexamp, which, like other power sellers, is regulated by the Maine Public Utilities Commission, expects to have 14 residential farms operating in the state next year, with the first ones in Auburn, Limerick, and Milo, and expand its discounted energy credit offer to Versant Power customers.
Dozens of other developers are also vying for land and permits to launch subscription-based farms. “Finally, people in Maine are going to be in a leveraged position,” says Chris Byers, an environmental-permitting consultant with Portland’s Boyle Associates, who is involved in several of the projects. “They’re going to have options.”
The ease and immediate financial benefits of the subscription model may appeal to many Mainers, even if the overall savings are less significant than if they had an ownership stake, like Farber. He and his fellow solar farm pioneers have had to contend with some headaches, such as insuring and monitoring their panels, that ReVision handles at its newer farms. “There has been some frustration,” he says. “However, I’ve never woken up one morning and said I shouldn’t have done this. It’s not even close.”