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New Community Solar Farm brings the heat

Power up
By HEATHER FORAN  |  October 24, 2014

Flip a switch, and a room floods with light. Pay a bill to the megalith of Central Maine Power each month, and this—amazingly—continues to happen day in and day out. For the average consumer, the electrical grid is a tangled and mysterious web.

This enigmatic “grid” is actually a network of independently owned and operated power plants and transmission lines. In Maine, 98 percent of those plants are generating electricity with something other than wind or solar (though a decent chunk of that is biomass and hydro—interesting topics for another day). Owners of solar panels have the option to exist independently or “off the grid.” However, if they stay hooked up to the grid then CMP bills them based on their net energy—that is, the difference between their power usage and generation. This means that solar owners, for example, can gain credits towards future disparities in net usage.

Not only that, but per a section of Maine “interconnection law” that deals with just that scenario, “virtual net metering” allows that if one site gets a whole bunch of sun but doesn’t use all the energy and another site gets very little sun but uses a lot of energy then bam!, the first can offset usage from the second.

One solar energy installer has decided to delve deeper into a previously untapped piece of that legislation: a clause that names that up to 10 individuals in Maine can share ownership of a renewable energy project.

Revision Energy has been installing solar for 10 years. Jennifer Hatch, Revision’s Marketing and Office Manager, explains that “we come across a lot of situations where someone really wants to install a system but they can’t for various reasons: too much shade; roof doesn’t have any space available for panels; or they live in a restricted area such as a historic district or within an association and they may not be able to put panels on their roof.” Add to that that they may not own their own home. Revision’s response: to create a Community Solar Farm (think Community Supported Agriculture—but for energy): a “cooperative model that facilitates construction of a large solar electric array at a remote side that is co-owned by a group of solar customers who live elsewhere.”

So you want solar, but can’t put it on your own house? You purchase a share (that is, a percentage of the total panel array) with eight others. A homeowner agrees to use their land to place the array (and gets a 30 percent tax credit to boot!). The cost of maintenance (strikingly minimal, since solar has no moving parts) is included in the purchase. You can sell your share, and your share can move with you so long as you move within CMP’s range. And you can expect that your share of the system will pay for itself somewhere in the range of 10 years and then your power will be free for the life of the array.

The first CSF, Sunnycroft Solar Farm, is under construction now in Paris. Several more are being discussed—in Damariscotta, South Portland, and on Peaks Island. As Hatch explains, there’s a 30 percent tax credit for buying solar until 2016, and solar prices are at an all-time low—so if you’ve been thinking solar, now’s the time. And if you’ve been thinking solar but didn’t want to chop down the beautiful maple trees in your backyard, now is apparently still the time.

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