BUCKSPORT, Maine — The first thing you notice as you drive along the dirt road to the Williams Pond Lodge is that there are no utility lines along the narrow scenic road.
When you reach the lodge, a bed and breakfast run by David Weeda and Dominick Rizzo, you find out why. Atop the two buildings is an array of photovoltaic panels that, even on an overcast day such as Saturday, were collecting the sun’s energy to power the business.
The lodge was one of 71 homes and businesses throughout the state that were part of this weekend’s Maine Solar Tour, an annual event that opens buildings using different types of solar systems to the public.
“The idea is to let the general public see what is possible right now, today,” said Richard Komp, president of the Maine Solar Energy Association, which sponsors the event with the American Solar Energy Society. “Our motto is ‘Real homes for real people.”’
Although it is difficult to get an accurate count, Komp estimates there are 3,000 solar users in the state. They range from elegant, expensive homes to little cottages, he said.
“More than half of them are on the grid,” he said. “They’re selling electricity back to the utility companies.”
There is a growing interest among businesses in using solar technology to generate heat or electricity. In addition to Williams Pond Lodge, a number of commercial applications of solar technology were on display during the tour.
ä The Maine View Apartments in Orono has used a solar thermal system since 1988 to heat domestic hot water for all 24 apartments year-round and also preheats the water in the forced hot-water baseboard heating system.
ä The Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association in Unity has a hot-air collector that heats a sprinkler building and a hot-water collector to heat the main building.
ä The Salt Water Grille in South Portland uses collectors to heat hot water for restaurant use in cooking and washing.
ä The Beachmere Inn in Ogunquit uses four active solar systems, one for electricity and three for hot water.
Weeda and Rizzo contemplated tying into the grid when they purchased their cottage on the shores of Williams Pond. That, however, would have involved installing poles and lines along the 0.8-mile road down to the lodge.
“The property was already off the grid,” Rizzo said. “The cost to bring power to the property was pretty high. It was way too expensive.”
The solar system was not cheap, either. But since it was installed, they have lived without a power bill.
In the summer months, the batteries are charged usually by noon each day, generating more power than they can use. Even on an overcast day such as Saturday, the panels were providing power to charge the bank of batteries.
Their off-grid system, designed and installed by Darrell DeJoy and his crew at Penobscot Solar Design in Penobscot, includes 50 115-watt photovoltaic panels located on six arrays. Two are on the original building; the rest are on a new building completed this year. They use a bank of six large batteries for storage.
Rizzo said he is not a technical expert, but he and Weeda have been able to operate the system, which requires little maintenance. All they do is add distilled water to the batteries four times a year. In the winter, they use a long-handled scraper to clear snow off the panels.
He said he does keep track of the voltage, amps and how much charge the batteries have. Monitors keep track of how much power is coming in and going out all the time. Rizzo pointed out how the numbers change when the water pump comes on, drawing power from the batteries, and how charge is built up again when it shuts off.
The bed and breakfast is a new business for Rizzo and Weeda, and they have not experienced using solar energy with guests in the lodge yet. But they spent most of the winter working on the new building, using power tools, without problems.
They have propane heat, which also heats the water. A backup generator automatically kicks in when the batteries occasionally run low.
Being off-grid, Rizzo said, they tend to be more aware of how they use electricity. They make sure to turn off lights when they leave a room, and schedule high-use activities, such as vacuuming and running the washing machine, for sunny days.
“But we live like everybody else,” he said.