Free Press, March 21, 2013
“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.”
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.
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.
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.