Here comes the sun: Cost, rebates making solar an option

ReVision Energy employee Brian Bryne (right) and Eric Herz (left) finish up wiring on a pair of solar collectors on a Camden home on Wednesday, April 6, 2011.
Kevin Bennett | BDN
ReVision Energy employee Brian Bryne (right) and Eric Herz (left) finish up wiring on a pair of solar collectors on a Camden home on Wednesday, April 6, 2011.
By Matt Wickenheiser, BDN Staff
Posted April 15, 2011, at 1:20 p.m.

Twenty thousand cars pass through the intersection of Wilson and State streets in Brewer daily, and if the motorists look up a bit, they can see the new solar panel array on the roof of the Supercuts salon.

The site has great solar orientation, and was built with an angled roof so everyone can see the panels as they drive by, said broker Carol Epstein of Epstein Commercial Real Estate, the building’s owner.

“I wanted it to be visible, a statement, an advertisement – so everyone could see the panels,” Epstein said.

The statement, said Epstein, is that solar technology works and is affordable.

This solar power installation follows one Epstein had done at her house in 2009. When she built her home 12 years ago, she planned to put in solar, putting on a metal roof for easy installation and orienting the house for maximum sunlight. But it was only recently that the decreasing cost of equipment, combined with federal and state rebates, made the project financially attractive.

“I’ve always been a believer and proponent of alternative energy – it’s just sort of ingrained,” said Epstein. “I really felt that finally, the panels had gotten to a point where the economics worked.”

Those combined factors of lower materials costs and effective subsidies have spurred continued strong interest in solar in the state, said Phil Coupe, co-founder of Liberty-based ReVision Energy, as consumers seek to lower their electric bills. And the high cost of heating oil has led many Mainers to install solar hot water systems, he said.

In the last seven years, Coupe said, ReVision has done more than 2,500 installations in Maine and New Hampshire. About 70 percent are home installations and 30 percent are commercial projects like the ones done for Epstein. ReVision also has put in some sizable systems at Bowdoin College, the University of New England, Thomas College and Oakhurst Dairy in Waterville.

Almost to a customer, property owners who put in solar energy systems talk about a desire to save money, help the environment and decrease dependence on foreign oil, said Coupe.

“Solar energy gives people this feeling that they’re doing something great for themselves, but also something really powerful for the community, environmentally and geopolitical-wise,” he said. “It’s very real, very palpable.”

Eric Evans of Camden had ReVision put in a hot water system two years ago, and then a solar-power system last month.

“Our goal with solar is to reduce our contribution to the need for importing oil, and to reduce our carbon footprint in general,” said Evans.

Nationwide, the capacity for photovoltaic installations doubled in 2009 over the previous year, according to the latest data from the Interstater Renewable Energy Council. It’s a trend that ReVision has seen here, said Coupe.

The company was originally formed in 2003 under the name EnergyWorks; in 2006 it opened a Portland office. In 2008 it changed the name to ReVision, and last year it opened an office in Exeter, N.H. The company has seen “strong growth” in sales year over year for the past five years, said Coupe, who declined to give specific numbers, but did say the company was profitable.

Coupe said the recent economic downturn helped drive down the cost of equipment; with less overall demand for solar installations, the price sank. Seth Masia, spokesman for the American Solar Energy Society, said the industry has concentrated on lowering the cost to make the equipment, and that also has contributed to lower prices. On the other hand, said Masia, “everybody knows what’s happening to oil prices.”

“It’s spiky, but the long-term trend is inexorably upward. We’re competing for a finite resource with China and Europe and Japan and India,” he said. “The appetite in China and India is through the roof.”

The combination of lower cost and rebates means a solar hot water or electric system will pay for itself quicker, said Coupe.

A typical household hot water system will cost about $11,000, he said. With a $1,000 cash rebate from the state and a 30 percent federal tax break, the real cost is $6,700. Likewise, a solar power system for a typical house is $20,000. The $2,000 state rebate and 30 percent federal break brings the real cost down to $12,000, he said. On average, a hot water system will pay for itself in 7½ years, with an expected overall life of 25 years. A solar electric system will pay for itself in 14 years, with an expected life of 40-plus years.

The hot water systems can supply a house, even in the dead of winter – as long as it’s a sunny day. Coupe noted that weather patterns in Maine formed by the Gulf Stream and by the mountains to the west tend to result in heavy storms followed by days of sun. Evans, in Camden, said he gets two-thirds to three-quarters of his hot water from the solar setup annually.

But the state part of the rebate program has had some issues recently. In what Coupe and state Rep. Stacey Fitts, R-Pittsfield, both described as an error of oversight, attempts to keep the program intact until 2015 were mistakenly undone by legislators in the last session, and the program ended in December.

Fitts co-chairs the Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee. He noted that the bill that would have extended the program passed the committee last session, unanimously. A new bill that also would extend it to 2015 also passed his committee this week, unanimously.

But the new bill doesn’t include the 0.0005 percent “systems benefit” surcharge that electric payers had been paying, the mechanism that had funded the rebate program. That surcharge amounted to about $1 a year for most residential customers, said Coupe. Overall, it had been putting roughly $400,000 into the rebate program annually, Coupe said.

Fitts works for Kleinschmidt, an energy and water resource consultant firm that mostly focuses on hydro, with occasional work on solar and wind projects.

Fitts said he thought the program ought to continue.

“I don’t think it’s fair to the companies that are out there,” said Fitts. “At the same time, it’s a new paradigm in the Legislature. Things that are surcharges on your electric bill aren’t real popular in the Republican caucus.”

So a new bill that extended the program with the old funding mechanism likely wouldn’t have passed the Legislature.

“It just wouldn’t make it, and I didn’t want the program considered dead,” said Fitts.

Instead, Fitts said, the new bill calls for rebates to be funded out of the renewable resources fund, which is primarily funded by electric payers who voluntarily check off an additional payment to support renewable energy.

Fitts said the solar rebate program still has about $500,000 in it. And the renewable resources fund collects about $100,000 a year, which had gone to small-scale wind turbines, among other projects. He said he believed that will be enough to fund solar projects annually, as the new bill also specifies that projects must be cost-effective. That addition will make the rebates more competitive, he said.

“If we’re going to give rebates, they’ve got to be cost-effective projects,” said Fitts. “We’re trying to add a little sense, fiscal responsibility.”

ReVision employs 37 people, said Coupe, with more than half hired in the last two years. He’s concerned that a less robust solar rebate program may throttle the growing solar industry in Maine.

“This is one of the bright spots in Maine’s economy,” he said. “We have solid job growth.”

http://bangordailynews.com/2011/04/15/business/here-comes-the-sun-cost-rebates-making-solar-an-option/ printed on September 17, 2014