Edgecomb Community Solar Farm, Maine’s first member-owned CSF, just went live.
Edgecomb Community Solar Farm, Maine’s first member-owned CSF, just went live.
Over two years ago, while researching a story about the local solar industry, I set out to determine whether my parents’ 19th-century farmhouse in Lincolnville would be a suitable place to generate power from the sun. Though not known for its sunshine, Maine is actually the sunniest place in New England and gets 33 percent more sun than Germany, the world’s leading solar energy producer. And with costs dropping 50 percent in the past several years, it looked like the technology was finally within reach of the average homeowner.

Unfortunately, I learned that solar opportunities for my parents were pretty limited.

After scanning the property, ReVision Energy determined that not only was the roof not accommodating for the PV panels, but the sunniest spot on the property only received about 84 percent sunlight per year. It wasn’t a super sunny location by industry standards and the cost of constructing a ground mount for an array would have drawn out the payback period even longer. The place was pretty much a strike-out for solar.  I already knew solar wasn’t an option for me, because I rent my house. 

Midcoast Community Solar Farm Launches

However, in the past year a new solar option has emerged, which is designed to make solar accessible to everyone, regardless of a lack of sunlight, roof space, or homeownership. Community solar farms (CSFs), or “solar gardens,” allow homeowners, renters and businesses to pool their resources and buy “sun shares” from a solar generator in another location. Through the utility’s “net energy billing” program, the user gets a share of the energy credits as the panels generate power, which can then be redeemed for grid power during periods when the sun isn’t shining. Under Maine law, any unused energy credits revert back to the utility without compensation after 12 months. But if you produce enough solar power, you don’t pay anything on your electric bill. 

This week, solar advocates in Lincoln County are celebrating the hook-up of the state’s first member-owned CSF in Edgecomb after a year of planning. Resident David Nutt said he and his wife Judy agreed to sign a 25-year lease to host the 48 kW, 182-panel solar array out of environmental concerns. 

“It’s something that Judy and I were interested in, and it fit within our belief system,” said Nutt. “We have to do something to reduce the CO2 output into the atmosphere from fossil fuels.”

The new system will serve nine local households, which are charged a percentage of the cost of the project depending on the number of panels they buy. Half of the panels are on Nutt’s barn and the other half are on a ground mount. The CSF is owned by its members, who have formed a mutual benefit nonprofit association called the Edgecomb Community Solar Farm Association to manage the facility. The solar power is automatically shared amongst each shareholding household on a percentage basis depending on how much they have invested. Typically a resident will pay up to $16,000 for 12 panels, which ReVision estimates takes about 10 to 15 years to pay back. But after the initial investment is paid off, all of the energy generated by the sun is virtually free power.

The Edgecomb Community Solar Farm Association was formed last fall as an offshoot of the Midcoast Green Collaborative, a group dedicated to environmentally responsible economic growth in the region. Around that time, the state’s first solar farm, owned and managed by ReVision, was completed on an old chicken barn in Paris, Maine, following a decision by the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) to approve community solar projects for up to 10 users. While Central Maine Power already gives electricity users the option of paying a premium to purchase renewable power through their electric bills, John Luft, ReVision Energy solar installer, says community solar is much cheaper in the long term due to the eventual pay-back. 

“Every single solar installation will eventually have a date where it’s paid back,” said Luft. “All of that is free and you don’t get that when you buy green power from CMP. You’re just on the hook for the rest of your life paying those bills.” 

Solar Farms: “A Complicated Beast”

Nevertheless, Luft advises homeowners and businesses that have a good location for solar to take advantage of it because a CSF is a “more complicated beast.” First off, the landowner who hosts the project must sign an agreement to host the arrays for 25 to 30 years and legally cannot sell it until the lease runs out. The hosts may receive a small fee for their troubles, but like the Nutts, most hosts agree to the terms not for the money, but as a form of environmental activism. 

“It’s not like you can just put all of these solar panels on your family land and kick back and live like [Texas billionaire] T. Boone Pickens,” said Luft. “That’s not gonna happen, flat out.” 

Luft says that land parcels that can’t be developed or utilized in other ways are the ideal locations for solar farms, such as a site in Rockland’s South End where ReVision is proposing a 350 kW CSF. The land situated in a field off Holmes Street, which is owned by resident Jason Philbrook, also has a three-phase power line that allows ReVision to build a much larger system than at other sites. When finished, the project could generate more than 400,000 kWh annually, but will likely only be made available to commercial users due to its high generation capacity. Shares will be a minimum of 1,500 kWh per month, which is nearly three times more than what the average Maine electricity customer uses.

“Off-site community solar means that downtown businesses, historic inns and other entities without great roofs can finally make solar a reality, all while building community and localizing energy,” said ReVision solar installer Hans Albee in a statement. “With grant money available from the USDA for small businesses, as much as 75 percent of project costs can be covered by grants and tax credits.”

ReVision will be giving a presentation on the proposal at the Rockland Public Library at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, August 11. 

Political Challenges to Shared Solar

One particularly big obstacle to the proliferation of CSFs in Maine is the state’s arbitrary limit of 10 meters (including the host) on a single solar farm, which makes them more expensive here than in other states with more progressive solar policies. 

“It’s so primitive and restrictive here in Maine,” said Nutt. “There’s clearly an economy of scale when you put a system up like this, and since we’re restricted to only nine people, we don’t get that economy of scale really.”

That arbitrary 10-meter limit also makes it challenging to devote public land to community solar projects because such a limited number of homes and businesses can benefit. This can cause resentment over public resources going to something that benefits only a select few. After the company’s recent experience in Bar Harbor, which had a contentious debate over a plan to build a CSF on municipal land, Luft says he now advises towns against going down the same road. 

“If the people of Maine want that possibility [of CSFs on public land], we have to lift the 10-meter cap or we’re going to invite disaster and for town hall politics to get ugly,” said Luft.

While Maine is one of 13 states and the District of Columbia that have shared renewable power policies in place, it is the only state that sets a 10-meter limit on CSFs, according to the advocacy group Vote Solar. 

Massachusetts, Minnesota, Colorado and California are leading the way in CSF development due to their pro-solar policies and are expected to install the majority of such projects in the coming years. On Cape Cod, the 346 kW Brewster Solar Garden hosts 1,440 PV panels and provides power to dozens of customers a month. According to the organization’s website, members receive an estimated $100-a-month energy credit equivalent to 28 panels, with approximately $6,400 transferred to the shareholder over the next five years. In Colorado, the proposed SunShare Community Solar Project is expected to generate approximately 350 million kW of energy over 20 years, which will be enough to power 1,600 homes. 

But in Maine, generating political support for solar has been challenging due to opposition from Gov. LePage, who argues that the state should focus investments on cheaper, fossil fuels like natural gas or subsidized Canadian hydro power. Earlier this year, Rep. Terry Morrison (D-South Portland) submitted a comprehensive solar bill that would have increased the wattage limit on community renewable energy projects, reinstated the state solar rebate program, increased the price limit the PUC could authorize for solar projects and study the feasibility of requiring solar as part of the state’s Renewable Energy Portfolio Standards. The bill failed after strong opposition from investor-owned utilities like CMP and Bangor Hydro, who argued that renewable energy subsidies are too expensive and force poor people to subsidize wealthier people who can afford the technology. However, investor-owned utilities have also openly admitted that locally produced solar poses a threat to profits because their monopoly business models depend on transmitting and distributiing electricity.

A 2013 report by the Edison Electric Institute, an association of investor-owned electric companies (which counts CMP among its members), warned of the financial risks that “disruptive forces” like solar voltaics and energy efficiency pose to utility investors. 

“Investors have no desire to sit by and watch as disruptive forces slice away at the value and financial prospects of their investment,” the report concluded. “While the utility sector provides an important public good for customers, utilities and financial managers of investments have a fiduciary responsibility to protect the value of invested capital.”

Last summer, CMP withdrew a controversial proposal to raise monthly charges on homes and businesses that produce their own renewable energy after solar advocates, business and environmental groups pushed back hard against the plan. Nevertheless, for the past five years, Maine’s electric companies have also successfully blocked all attempts to pay solar producers more favorable rates, despite a recent PUC finding that locally distributed solar is worth 20 cents more per kilowatt-hour than the net energy credits producers receive. 

Time Running Out for Federal Solar Credit

Right now solar companies are in a mad rush to install as much solar as they can before a substantial 30-percent federal tax credit expires at the end of 2016. The federal program, which allows homeowners to claim a credit of 30 percent of qualified expenditures for a system, is currently the only public incentive for installing solar in Maine aside from net energy billing. Unless Congress acts soon, that could go away and solar could become even more out of reach of average households. And that’s why renewable energy activists and installers have been trying to get the word out about opportunities for shared-solar alternatives such as CSFs and bulk purchasing programs like “Solarize Central Lincoln County.” All of the buzz is also stimulating job growth in the industry, says Luft.

“We’re averaging one new hire a week,” he added. “Tell the governor that.”