Look on the Bright Side
Declining prices, changes in state policy, and improved technology mean there’s never been a better time to go solar in Maine.
You might be inclined to dismiss it as a hyperbolic sales pitch when solar power installers tell you today’s prices are low, low, low. But when the pitchman is Tom Gocze, who’s been in the business since 1979, the assertion has the ring of credibility. “The cost of the technology continues to drop,” says Gocze, president of American Solartechnics in Searsport and host of Hot and Cold, a call-in radio show on Bangor’s WVOM-FM focused on home improvement. And when those reduced prices are coupled with significant changes to state policies regulating making electricity from the sun, he argues, the future is bright for Mainers who want to invest in the technology. But he and other industry representatives also warn that federal policies, in effect or proposed, could cloud that sunny outlook. One timeline looms large — the federal 30 percent tax credit for buying solar equipment is set to drop at the end of 2019 to 26 percent. Further cuts could follow. And yet, these headwinds seem unlikely to alter the prevailing notion among installers and many homeowners that solar power is now no more of a luxury than a kitchen or bath retrofit. Best of all, it’s an investment that allows you to bask in savings today, not just when your house is sold.
According to the nonprofit Solar Energy Industries Association, the cost to install photovoltaic panels has dropped by more than 70 percent over the last decade — from $40,000 for an average-size 5- to 6-kilowatt system (producing, on average, 14 kilowatts of electricity per day), in 2010 to roughly $18,000 today. The price of panels is approaching $1 per watt of potential electricity production, which helps explain why one million American homes are now equipped with solar arrays.
The soon-to-decrease 30 percent federal tax credit can mean a $6,000 cut in a $20,000 system, but Chuck Piper, co-owner, with his son, of Sundog Solar in Searsport, believes the diminishing national incentive is not going to impact demand. “We don’t really need that anymore,” he says, since prices have come down substantially and manufacturing and distribution are now well established. John Luft, of ReVision Energy in Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts, adds that going solar at home — even though it means a hefty upfront investment — is like locking in at $2 per gallon for heating oil for 10 years. Sundog and ReVision regularly work with banks to finance system installations and Piper notes that lending institutions are often comfortable making these sorts of home improvement loans because the customer is essentially substituting one monthly payment for another. Frequently, “the monthly finance fee is only slightly higher than the electric bill,” he says. And after the note is paid off, the panels belong to the homeowner.
When Edward Earle and Anna Strickland planned an addition to their 1826 Belfast home, they seized the opportunity to add solar power. “We worked with an architect to make it look like the original house,” Edward says of the addition, with the direction and pitch of the new roof allowing for a 5.4-kilowatt system producing, at peak, as much as 30 kilowatts of electricity per day. “Interestingly, in March we were generating more power than in the summer,” he says, and the couple saw a monthly electric bill of just $16. The anticipated timeframe for the cost of the system to be recouped in reduced electric bills is about 15 years, Edward says, but even at age 68, he is comfortable with that calculation. The panels, which are adjacent to an extensive perennial garden, “have the appearance of something that belongs here,” he says. “Photosynthesis has been part of our experience in this house. Why not photovoltaic collectors there? I kind of like the poetics of it, I guess.”
Net Gains in Net Metering
The election of Janet Mills as Maine’s governor and Democrats gaining majorities in both houses of the Maine Legislature in 2018 brought several new laws that are rolling out favorable conditions for homeowners to switch to solar. One of the most significant was a return to net metering from gross metering. “It was pretty gross,” jokes Piper. “It was a penalty on solar customers,” with utilities able to charge a fee on every kilowatt of energy a home-based solar system produced, even if that electricity went from the roof to the circuit breaker panel to the blender mixing drinks in the kitchen. Net metering allows homeowners connected to the electrical utility’s lines — known as being “grid-tied” — to send unused electricity back through the meter to the grid. If, at the end of the year, the homeowner has produced as much or more electricity than was consumed at the house, the electric bill — other than a monthly charge of $12.50 to stay connected — is wiped out.
Another new state law allows for up to 200 subscribers to join a community solar project, up from the previous cap of nine. That means if you don’t have a south-facing roof with clear views of the sky, or if you live in an apartment, you can still tap into a renewable energy source and see lower electric rates. The key elements of community solar are that the panels must be located together at a single site, and the total output cannot exceed 5 megawatts, or about 8,000 panels. So if you own a field of some size, and have a couple hundred friends, you can jointly create your own solar array. Larger installers, like ReVision Energy, are soliciting interest in creating new solar farms, but Luft says subscriber fees have yet to be established, pending refinement of the new laws by the Maine Public Utilities Commission. Like community supported agriculture, solar farms apply the credits given by the utility to subscribers’ electric bills.
Short on Space?
Another new option for those whose rooftops and yards are unsuitable for traditional solar arrays is a PV canopy. ReVision Energy recently partnered with a New York–based company to offer a freestanding roof, supported by steel trusses — picture 10-foot-high sawhorses — on which panels are mounted. In an urban setting, a 5-kilowatt canopy — which produces about 11 kilowatts of electricity per day and costs around $4,000 — can serve as a carport, and in a rural area it might cover a picnic table or firewood pile.
On the Horizon
One of the next key thresholds for the solar energy industry to cross is battery storage. Lithium batteries have become less expensive and able to hold electricity for longer. Experts predict that if battery improvements continue apace, in five to 10 years homes could cost-effectively store their own electricity and see the utility meter grind to a near halt. The utility could shut down power to a house for two hours if electricity is needed elsewhere in the grid, and give the homeowner a discount on the rate it charges for the right to do so. One factor driving battery improvements is the widespread adoption of hybrid electric cars. Gocze spends much of his time at American Solartechnics replacing and repairing Toyota Prius batteries. They have been remarkably long-lived, he says, and manufacturers are on the brink of making them far better. “I’m a technology optimist,” Gocze says. “It’s a very interesting place to be, to see all this happening.”