HARPSWELL, Maine — The business is called Reversing Falls Lobster Wharf, named for the fickle tidal current that flows both into and out of Basin Cove.
If all goes according to plan, the electrical meter, too, will be running in reverse at least part of the time.
Owned by Harpswell native Jim Merryman, the wharf recently received an array of 44 photovoltaic solar panels, which should generate electricity long after his children are old enough to inherit the business.
The system was designed and installed by Portland-based alternative energy consultant and contractor ReVision Energy. Each panel is rated at a peak power production of 240 watts. Overall, the system has a peak power capacity of 10 kilowatt-hours of electricity, or enough to power three or four average residential households for an entire day.
“They’re set up on two roofs,” Merryman said. “We just recently built a new wharf to replace one that stood for 36 years, and one array sits on top of that. The other is on top of the fish house.”
Together, the two arrays total 800 square feet of solar cells.
It’s also an ecologically sound solution for an area in which environmental health is key.
“We’re going to be the first commercial working waterfront with all of its energy supplied by ‘green’ power,” Merryman said. “As a business owner, I want to take advantage of the technology out there and make this a carbon neutral, clean-energy working waterfront.”
An open house is scheduled from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesday to introduce the new and improved facility.
Now 41, Merryman started lobstering when he was 8 years old with a rowing skiff and three traps. He bought Reversing Falls Lobster Wharf three years ago through the Land for Maine’s Future program, a nonprofit organization which helps preserve natural vistas, open space and traditional waterfront. A series of covenants also ensures that the property will remain working waterfront in perpetuity.
Merryman describes himself as “a lobsterman first and a business owner second.” But it’s the attraction of being able to drastically lower one of the constant expenses of doing business that has lured this lobsterman to alternative energy production.
Maine lobstermen have had a rough summer. For four months, the cost of everything associated with their industry — diesel fuel, bait, insurance, rope and other essential materials — has continued to increase. But the price they get for the lobsters they catch has gone down.
Lobstermen saw a large number of soft-shell lobsters this year, which sell for a lower rate. “Soft” lobsters have a lower percentage of meat in them, which means they are less valuable to the wholesale wharves that buy them and then resell them to restaurants.
In addition to the increased costs, low demand for the New England delicacy combined to keep prices so low that many lobstermen lost money just by leaving the dock.
So, when Merryman thought about it, the ability to corral at least one business expense — such as the cost of the power needed to light and operate his live tanks, pumps, refrigeration and facilities — seemed like a very good idea.
Enter ReVision Energy, which has designed and installed more than 3,000 solar collection systems throughout Maine and New Hampshire since 2005. Its technicians performed an energy audit and designed a system that would produce enough energy to run the entire wharf on days with “average” sunlight.
Power will fluctuate constantly as the sun moves across the sky during the day. Early mornings and evenings, the wharf will draw electricity from Central Maine Power Co. During full-sun days, however, the panels likely will collect enough energy to put power back into the public grid.
“There is no storage capacity in this system,” said Fortunat Mueller, engineer, designer and ReVision co-founder. “Excess power instantly is returned to the grid, the meter spins backward and generates a credit with Central Maine Power.”
The panels produce direct current, or DC, electricity. However, household appliances run on alternating current, or AC, electricity.
“Panels and grid power feed the building in tandem,” Mueller said. “It’s all controlled by the meter.”
The system is wired to the lobster wharf in parallel with the existing power grid so that electrons flow seamlessly without power flickers or surges. It’s powerful enough to generate about 13,000 kilowatt hours a year.
It also is designed for strength and resiliency: The panels have a 30-year lifespan, and are weather-tested to withstand three-quarter-inch hail stones and 90 mph winds. Coastal winters shouldn’t bother them.
“Nothing is going to damage those panels,” Mueller said. “They’re pretty rugged, you can stand up on top of them without going through.”
Viewed from the bottom line of a ledger, zeroing out energy expenses over the life of a business probably would be incentive enough. But Merryman says the community — as well as the commercial fishing industry — needs more ecological attention.
“It’s about making a difference,” he said. “There’s no industry in the state that relies on clean water like the lobster industry, and we’re doing our part to ensure clean water for future generations.”
If the math is correct, by this time next year not only will the power bill be lower but the panels will have removed 18,000 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions from the air over Harpswell. It’s an intangible benefit. But couple cleaner air with drastically reduced energy bills, and it begins to look like a no-brainer.
A year of planning and budgeting went into the solar conversion. Buying and mounting the panels cost nearly $50,000. However, with federal tax credits and rebates for depreciation — as well as state incentives that account for less than 4 percent of the conversion’s total cost — the net cost of the project was reduced by more than half.
Mueller estimates that the system will have paid for itself within five to eight years.
“Government support in Maine for sustainable energy is pretty tepid,” Mueller said. “Other states make it a lot easier and less expensive for people to convert to solar energy.”