Maine: a market for solar

Is there enough sunshine — and consumer drive — to sustain a solar market in Maine? You betcha.

EnergyWorks, LLC operates out of Liberty, Maine and is busily expanding. It recently opened a Portland office and is eyeing the business market in Waldo County, a stretch of Maine’s coastline. Maine Housing webstats show Waldo County resembles many other counties along the Maine coast. In Maine, the median house price increased 67.4% over the last five years, while over the same time period, median incomes increased 14.2%, making 62% of Waldo County’s housing stock unaffordable to the average Mainer.

Someone else (someone likely from Boston or New York) can afford these coastal homes and is driving up the housing market. If you’re going to market greentech, why not harness the sun and sell it to this upper income segment, creating jobs for Mainers along the way?

EnergyWorks has been successful doing just that.

Rebates through the Maine Public Utility Commission’s State Energy Program and support from Governor John Baldacci don’t hurt. Says Judy Perry of EnergyWorks, “We did a lot jobs because of the rebates. The incentives go a long way to making it happen in Maine.” (Funding for the solar PV rebates have been exhausted, but rebates remain for solar hot water systems.) “The State of Maine did some PR to support the rebates. It didn’t penetrate. The Maine State Energy Program website talks about the program. Few people knew about it. We’re about to run ads saying there are still state rebates.”

EnergyWorks will focus on the commercial market. It has completed some big commercial projects, and its commercial work has doubled over the last couple of years. It recently completed Maine’s largest installation of a solar PV array at Maple Hill Farm Bed & Breakfast in Hallowell, just south of Augusta, Maine’s capital.

Says Perry, “We’re trying to work close to home, trying to reduce travel. We’re focused on Maine’s MidCoast…Camden, Rockland, Belfast, Liberty. There’s a lot of money along the coast, and in Southern Maine, and that’s where the jobs are.”

Perry adds, “Everyone thinks it’s too cold here for solar thermal, but it’s not. Some of our customers have drastically reduced their energy bills. They reduce use first; then they do solar, and they’re coming up with really low bills, as low as $10.”

A PV system, says Perry, can run $18K, so they aren’t cheap. One of EnergyWorks’ clients expects a return on investment of under 10 years even without an electric rate increase. The equipment will last 30 years, more than the lifetime of the house. “You can do quite well in Maine. The technology of panels has improved; even without true south solar orientation, you can still produce quite a lot. And with solar thermal, the evacuation tubes are round, so there’s a slight increase in production because of the shape.”

I ask Perry why her customers are installing solar. “For our customers, it’s the green aspect; it’s the right thing to do. There are the ones who want to get off oil; they understand that connection. The core of our clients are those who are aware of the environment and want to get to independence. Some of these jobs are expensive; there are big systems on the roof. Clients can offset use, even though they’re not reducing use. We have plenty of clients who are off the grid completely, and there are no rebates for off-grid.”

Perry also sees a direct connection between the price of gasoline at the pump and the phone ringing at her shop. These consumers are worried about home heating, and then they think about getting off oil. They look at these issues, what’s going to happen when oil is over.

Says Perry, “We have interesting clients. They’ve thought through all of their choices. They think about the embodied energy in building materials, where the materials came from — where lots of people don’t think these things through. Our clients chart oil; they are engaged in systems and monitoring things. That’s the way their brains work. Something is going on with the math, science people. We did several projects for people teaching in those departments. I’d get an email; it would say the department name of a college. Campuses in Maine have sustainability departments, and some of those teachers are our clients.”

I ask Perry, do customers think about where there electricity comes from? If they see the oil-Iraq-solar thermal-gas pump connection, do they see the electricity connections, that electricity in Maine isn’t generated from oil? Perry says, “I bet most people don’t know where electricity comes from…nuke or coal or whatever. There’s a direct connection between Iraq and the gas tank, but not the other way, not for electricity.”

As for educating the public and marketing, Perry says, “We get it down to things like monthly budgets. That’s how we keep it simple. If there were easy financing, there would be more installation jobs. We need to leverage loans for solar. I’m dealing with people who know what solar can do. Other people think it’s out of reach, or it’s some hippy thing or it looks bad, or it can’t be done. Some people don’t understand the technology; they think that with solar, you’re sitting in the dark.”

Perry says PV can raise the value of a home and it can insulate customers from raising costs, but she wonders, does the general public understand? “People don’t see all of it. It’s complicated. For most people, when they pay more for electricity, that’s when they start to act. Climate change does not equate to action around PV and energy efficiency. Running out of oil is dicey. This is a progressive area, so they make the connection. Others aren’t making the connection that we are causing this problem [of climate change].

“It’s booming in ways. There’s lots of interest. But it’s not everyone.”

Heather Rae, a contributor to cleantechblog.com, manages a ‘whole house’ home performance program in Maine. In 2006, she built a biobus and drove it from Colorado to Maine. In 2007, she begins renovation of an 1880 farmhouse using building science and green building principles.

4 replies
  1. Save and Conserve
    Save and Conserve says:

    I don't really understand why people think there is a connection between going solar at their residence on one end and alleviating America's dependency to oil on the other end.We import lots of oil so we can fuel our transportation fleet … not so we can create electricity. For that, we use other fossil fuels like natural gas and coal.I love solar and I'm very interested in clean renewable energy. But you could put solar on every roof in America and still have an oil addiction, ya know?Nice post, btw-Tom

  2. LearningDan
    LearningDan says:

    Tom,I think you could love solar even a little more. Because, IMO, we need to (and eventually will) switch to electric and/or fuel cell vehicles and the more electricity we can produce in a sustainable manner the better.Dan

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