Thomas, Unity colleges look to sun for power

By Alex Barber, BDN Staff
Posted Oct. 28, 2012, at 4:01 p.m.

With an eye toward energy sustainability and the drop in cost of installations, two more Maine educational institutions have been adding solar power to their campuses.

Unity College in Unity recently finished installing a 144-panel, 37-kilowatt array on its campus, while Thomas College in Waterville is adding a 700-panel, 170-kilowatt system atop Harold Alfond Athletic Center.

“It fits our sustainability commitments, and it absolutely fits our approach to education,” said Jesse Pyles, Unity College sustainability coordinator. “It’s a really exciting teaching tool for students to be able to get close to the system.”

Unity and Thomas have followed the lead of Good Will-Hinckley, which installed a 110-panel, 25.85-kilowatt system earlier this year.

ReVision Energy, based in Liberty, did the work for all three schools.

In each case, ReVision Energy puts up the money and installs the system. It then sells electricity to the institutions for a few cents less than they would normally pay for electricity. ReVision will then sell the tax credits to the best market.

“What motivates us is the desire to see this very clean form of energy to be adopted more widely in the New England region,” said ReVision Energy co-founder Bill Behrens.

After six or seven years, ReVision then sells the equipment to the institution for about 25 percent of the original price.

For Unity College, it will take about 4 1/2 years for the system to pay for itself, said Pyles. The system will likely cost Unity $30,000. The panels last for about 35 to 40 years, he added.

“We expect over the course of a year to produce between 45,000 to 48,000 kilowatt hours [at Unity],” said Pyles. “That’s about 85 percent of our average annual usage for the library building.”

Those savings help stabilize the school’s budget, said Behrens.

“It stabilizes their costs and makes it very predictable,” he said, using otherwise fluctuating home heating fuel costs as an example.

The solar system will save Unity about 5 percent of the campus’ electricity cost, while Thomas will see an 11 percent savings on its current load, said Behrens.

After Thomas buys the system from ReVision, “Over the next 20 years, it will save the college at least $500,000,” said Rhoda.

Behrens said the Thomas College project is the largest solar power project in the state.

John Luft, ReVision branch manager in Liberty, said the 50 percent drop in the cost of installing the solar systems has seen a rise in demand.

“Now it’s game on,” said Luft. “Whether they’re doing it for environmental reasons or for economic reasons, you can do it for both now.”

The photovoltaic solar systems being installed are grid-tied systems.

“There’s no battery bank. Whatever energy is produced that isn’t used immediately is sent back to the grid [Central Maine Power],” said Pyles. “Every kilowatt hour we generate, we get a credit on our account.”

Luft said ReVision has done about 3,000 solar power installations in its 10-year history. More projects are on the list for this year, including Colby-Sawyer College and Proctor Academy, both in New Hampshire.

Projects in South Portland, North Yarmouth and at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor are on next year’s schedule. Husson University in Bangor and Kennebec Valley Community College in Fairfield are also possible, said Behrens.

Germany leads the world in solar-power installations, said Behrens. but Maine gets more sunlight.

“Maine is bathed in sunlight,” said Behrens. “I know we have nasty weather, but for the most part, we have very high sun in Maine, and people don’t realize that. Gradually, I think people are going to recognize that this state is a real opportunity to generate all our power needs from sunlight.”

http://bangordailynews.com/2012/10/28/news/mid-maine/thomas-unity-colleges-look-to-sun-for-power/ printed on September 23, 2014