Kal Winer and Linda Tatelbaum with the solar array they have used to power their home in Appleton for over 30 years - Photo by Andy O’Brien
Kal Winer and Linda Tatelbaum with the solar array they have used to power their home in Appleton for over 30 years - Photo by Andy O’Brien
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"Solar was like a dream," said Appleton resident Kal Winer as he recalled the first few years homesteading with his wife Linda Tatelbaum in the late 1970s. "Back in the '70s when we had the first oil shock, I could see what I thought was a very real crisis for people. It was then that I started getting interested in energy conservation."

In 1977, the couple arrived in midcoast Maine determined to live a more energy-efficient lifestyle. Living in a 1950s-era trailer that they hauled up from New Hampshire, they froze through the cool temperatures of early spring and sweated all summer as they worked on building their dream home. As Winer says, they didn't have many skills, but they took classes, read books, and eventually built what he describes as a pretty successful passive-solar home.

Now, even on a brisk late-winter day, the temperature in the house is about 74 degrees and they still haven't lit a fire in the woodstove. They spend about $400 a year on wood to heat the place due to the building's energy efficiency and capacity to harness the warmth of the sun. On the back wall hangs a Greenpeace sticker with the words, "Maybe the hippies are right."

As Tatelbaum documents in her book, Carrying Water as a Way of Life, the couple lived a very spartan lifestyle in the early days, with no electricity or running water. They carried water from the well, chopped wood and had kerosene lamps.

"We didn't have a sense when we were doing it that it was going to be temporary, but it took an enormous amount of time," recalled Winer.

After the birth of their son Noah, they became wary of the kerosene fumes and began thinking about making life a little easier. But there were no power lines where they lived. Then they read about a company installing a solar array on Monhegan in a local newspaper. The couple initially bought four 35-watt solar panels in 1981. It was not a lot of power, but it was enough to keep the lights on at night, if they were careful. Sometimes that meant going to bed a little earlier.

"It was like having a job with not a very big paycheck," said Winer. "The system worked fine as long as you lived within the confines of what you took in. It was a very limited kind of system, but we were willing to live in its rhythm."

The system had a battery storage unit, but if it was winter and the battery was down, a candlelight dinner might be in the cards.

Since then, Winer and Tatelbaum have upgraded to a little less than 1,000 watts in their solar array, which is still quite minimal by today's standards. After more than 31 years, they're still using the original panels and they remain off the grid. They've never paid an electric bill as long as they've lived in their home. The only maintenance the panels have needed is brushing off the snow in the winter. They have a propane backup generator, which Winer said he's fortunately only had to use once in the past three years. Although they still have to be careful with their energy use, Winer said they have enough to power their home 12 months out of the year. However, as he noted, they still can't go to an appliance or electronic store without seriously considering efficiency. Not everyone is used to buying a $70 LED lightbulb or a high-efficiency refrigerator, but it's the price of being off the grid.

"You get to feel very pure and a little bit crazy," said Winer, laughing. "But if we were starting now, I don't know if we would choose to [live off the grid]. What we were doing wasn't completely unknown, but it was relegated to a certain kind of person."

Enter Grid-Tied Solar

According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Maine receives more sun than any other New England state, which makes solar a very real energy option for local homes and businesses. And although photovoltaic (PV) solar electricity is sometimes still associated with "a certain kind of person," a lot has changed since the early adopters began installing the off-the-grid systems. The battery-backup solar is still available, and is often used at residences in remote locations far away from power lines, but in recent years grid-tied solar has become the dominant player.

There are no batteries required for grid-tied solar; instead, it uses the grid as a kind of battery. By using a grid-tie inverter, which converts the Direct Current (DC) generated by the panels to the grid-compliant Alternating Current (AC), homeowners can produce electricity from the sun and receive energy credits from the power company for any excess solar energy sent back to the grid. The homeowner can then redeem those credits for grid power when the sun isn't out, through Maine's net-metering program. They can also simply supplement any power not produced by the sun with grid electricity. Homes that produce as much electricity from solar as they use in a year are considered "net zero."

Then there's the cost. Due to increased competition from solar-panel manufacturers in Asia, solar prices have fallen 58 percent in the past two years alone, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. And this is a trend that is expected to continue. While this has been bad news for US manufacturers, it has allowed solar to become more accessible to homeowners than ever before. The number of recent residential installations in the last quarter sets an all-time record.

"In the past it was kind of 'planetary philanthropy,'" said John Luft, a solar installer with ReVision Energy in Liberty. "People did it not necessarily caring about the return. But now we can get it down to a 10-year payback."

With a 30-percent federal tax credit available for homeowners with federal tax liability and a rebate of up to $2,000 available through Efficiency Maine, current government policies make solar installations more affordable. Efficiency Maine also offers low-interest loans that are available to residents living in towns that have passed a municipal ordinance allowing the program.

As Chuck Piper, owner of Sundog Solar in Searsport, explains, if a family has a $100-a-month electric bill, they can finance a solar array with an Efficiency Maine loan and turn that electric bill into a $100-a-month solar payment at a 15-year, fixed interest rate.

"Whereas the electric company rates could go up over 15 years, you know what your energy is going to cost for the next 15 years," says Piper. "At the end of 15 years, you own a system that's guaranteed to produce for another 15 years, but will probably produce longer."

By ReVision Energy's estimates, a typical solar array can save a homeowner up to $12,000 over the course of 20 years, with a payback time of 10 to 12 years.

"It has a guarantee on investment," said Luft. "It's not like the sun's going to stop coming up. If that happens we have other issues. A lot of people have been looking at their money sitting in the stock market and it hasn't been doing anything. If I put it into solar, it's going to make a six-percent return. You can put a bunch of money in Exxon Mobil, but is that going to make you feel all warm and fuzzy?"

Back in 2011, the town of Searsmont took advantage of a federal grant through Efficiency Maine that covered all but about $2,500 for 36 panels on the roof of the town office. According to First Selectman Bruce Brierley, after saving $2,000 on the town's electric bill the first year, he was sold. The town is now looking into grants to help finance more solar panels.

"It's a good idea to look at how much it's going to cost and how long it will take to recoup the cost," said Brierley. "But it's been good to us."

Reliability

Depending on the company, solar electric panels typically have a 20- to 30-year warranty, which will generally provide at least 80-percent output during that time, according to SolarEnergy.net. Gradually, the panels will start to degrade, but according to Piper at Sundog, they will usually run at 60- to 70-percent capacity for another 10 years after his panel warranty.

According to ReVision Energy, the systems can last up to 40 to 50 years even in Maine's severe climate. However, the performance of solar arrays depends also on how well the system was installed. The grid-tie inverters usually have a warranty of around five to 10 years, but it's recommended that homeowners be wary of the load, as an overloaded inverter can be expensive to replace. Other problems can arise from an installer promising more electrical capacity than the system can deliver. In Maine, while installers must have multiple licenses to take advantage of solar tax rebates, the state does not require contractor licenses. The state Attorney General's office advises buyers to do their research. Solar industry experts recommend that consumers seek out a company with a track record with North American Board Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP) on staff. As far as maintenance goes, aside from brushing off the snow, the PV panels don't need much attention, according to those in the industry. However, for rooftop arrays, it's important to consider the cost of removing and reinstalling the system should you need to re-shingle.
Will Solar Work for Me?

Looking at my parents' electric bill of $100 a month, I wondered if solar would be an option for them. As anyone in the energy business will tell you, efficiency can make the most difference in bringing down electricity bills.

"When people put in solar electric systems, we try to size them so that it either covers their load or is slightly below their current load, and then we evaluate some of the things in their home and say, 'You know, if you didn't have that inefficient freezer in the basement, that would reduce your load and you'd be able live within production levels of your solar electric system,'" says Piper at Sundog

As a matter of fact, there are two freezers in my parents' house, which they use to store food from the farm. The one in the cellar happens to be an old chest freezer not being used for much, so that can go. We also checked all of the lights to see if high-efficiency compact fluorescent lightbulbs were put in.

As anyone who has driven by the old farmhouse in Lincolnville knows, it's not the sunniest spot in town. The property is surrounded by forested state park land, with a mountain to the south, right in the direction where PV panels should face to take advantage of the most sun. Nevertheless, John Luft at ReVision Energy was willing to come and do a shade analysis.

"We see the world totally differently," Luft informed me as he stepped out of the truck. "Everything is all about the sun."

While dormers may make nice architecture, solar installers see them as "solar interrupters." Even if we could somehow flatten out the roof, with the big ash tree out front, it wasn't going to work. However, there was still the option of mounting the PV panels on the ground, which is a more expensive option than roof-mounted systems. After some searching, we located a spot just between the sauna and the leach field behind the house. Luft took out his SunEye, a handheld tool used to measure shade and access to sunlight. With GPS technology, the SunEye can locate where the sun is going to be annually and what time of day will provide what percentage of light from a specific location. With the fisheye lens, it takes a 360-degree photo of the spot roughly where the panels would be mounted, facing south at a 45-degree angle. At the best spot, we receive an average of 84-percent sunlight per year. Not a super sunny location.

After running the numbers, Luft concluded that with 16 panels, they could produce 4,400 kilowatts per year. If the panels could be mounted on the roof, with 84 percent sunlight, the cost would be roughly $13,700 before incentives or $7,590 after state and federal incentives. At $0.15/kWh the system would make $665 worth of electricity per year for a payback of 11.4 years. However, since our lack of roof space requires the ground-mount system, the cost would be much higher. This would involve digging a hole with an excavator, setting cement in it, putting in a steel column, mounting the panels on it, and finally running a line back to the house.

Luft estimates that about 10 to 20 percent of the time, the site is a "strike-out" for solar, but that doesn't mean all options are off the table. For homeowners without roof space, installers recommended building a shed or even a simple pole barn that can not only act as a storage unit but also a personal power plant. Others with property in other locations with a separate meter can install the panels at that location and redeem the energy credits on their home meter.

A Solar-Based Future?

Although solar usage has rapidly spiked in recent years, lawmakers still struggle between investing in renewable energy and sticking with the way energy policy has always been done.

According to ISO New England, which oversees the bulk of electric power in the region, New England currently receives about half of its energy from oil and gas, 30 percent from nuclear, 5 percent from hydro, 3 percent from coal, and 6 percent from other renewables. Analyzing the International Energy Agency's (IEA) estimates for global energy usage and comparing all of the earth's energy resources, researcher Richard Perez of the University at Albany's Atmospheric Sciences Research Center has maintained that solar is the only source that can solve the earth's energy problems. According to Perez, "exploiting only a very small fraction of the earth's solar potential could meet the demand, with considerable room for growth." However, solar advocates admit, we're a long way from that happening.

Currently, Germany is the standard by which solar supporters set the bar. Germany has installed more solar than anywhere in the world and receives between 3 and 10 percent of its energy from the sun.

While Maine's net metering allows solar producers to redeem energy credits for grid power, they do not receive any compensation for sending excess solar back to the grid. Any unused energy credits revert back to the utility without compensation after 12 months. In countries such as Germany and even in states like Vermont and California, there are feed-in tariff policies that allow an average homeowner to sell that excess power back to the grid at favorable rates. But in spite of the rapid growth in Germany's solar industry, the subsidies have not been cheap and have been the subject of recent controversy. However, solar advocates in Maine are quick to point out that Maine actually receives 33 percent more sun than Germany. A 2009 bill based on German's feed-in tariff policy failed in the Maine Legislature, but the same year, a study conducted by the Institute for Local Self Reliance found that 24 percent of Maine's energy needs could be met by solar. This year Senator Chris Johnson (D-Lincoln County) has submitted a new piece of feed-in tariff legislation.

At the state level, those in the solar industry are particularly nervous because Efficiency Maine's state rebate program for solar installations is set to run out in May. Rep. Terry Morrison (D-South Portland) has recently submitted legislation to continue the rebate program, which is funded by a small charge on electric bills. After the majority Republicans shot down a similar measure last session, it's unclear whether Governor LePage will support it.

While proposals to increase the amount of solar required in Maine's Renewable Portfolio Standard have failed, the solar industry has been successful on other fronts. For instance, the Maine Public Utilities Commission has recently approved the three-year GridSolar Pilot Project in Boothbay to help meet the demand of summer peak loads. Currently, CMP's single transmission line onto the Boothbay peninsula has been close to exceeding load capacity at certain times, and rather than spending $18 million to rebuild the lines, locally produced solar has become the preferred option. The system aims to generate 2,000 kW of electricity and is scheduled for operation in July.

As for residents with too much shade or limited roof space, like my parents, future legislation could feasibly make solar an option. Although Maine's net metering does not yet allow such ventures to exist, other states such as Massachusetts have passed legislation to permit neighborhood net metering known as "solar farms." Similar to community-supported agriculture, solar farms allow homeowners, businesses and even renters to buy "SunShares" in a cooperative solar plant. At the Brewster Solar Garden on Cape Cod, members buy a share of 28 solar panels for $5,000. The power generated by those panels is then deducted from a member's monthly electric bill. According to the organization's website, members receive an estimated $100-a-month energy credit, with approximately $6,400 transferred to the shareholder over the next five years.

As for the future of Maine's solar industry, those interviewed for the story say it's looking bright and business has been good. ReVision Energy is hiring four more employees, which will grow their shop by a third.

"In the early days of solar it was just the 'greenie beanies' buying it, people who had the money and it didn't matter if it made sense economically," says Luft. "Now we're not just doing this for super wealthy people. The systems are selling themselves." However, he is quick to add, "Solar, as is, is not going to save the world. This is a transition period. Better solar might change the world, though."