June 20, 2018
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Sundog Solar sees bright future for Maine

By Tom Groening, BDN Staff

SEARSPORT, Maine — Maine’s day in the sun has come, according to businessman Chuck Piper.

The owner of the Sundog Solar Store, a 3-year-old business that has grown and moved to a new building east of town, argues that despite Maine’s northerly climate and heating challenges, the region gets enough sun to warrant installing residential and commercial solar power hardware.

And many Mainers are doing just that, Piper said.

In addition to moving from the storefront in downtown Searsport to the larger commercial building on U.S. Route 1 (last occupied by Tom Gocze’s American Solartechnics), Sundog has hired three more installers to work with son Danny Piper and an office assistant.

“In three years, we’ve become the second largest solar installer in Maine, according to Efficiency Maine,” Piper said, the non-profit energy efficiency organization.

To understand the business, it’s important to define terms.

The term “solar power” is used to describe two technologies. One is the array of photovoltaic, or PV panels that are mounted on roofs or on poles on the ground. When activated by sunlight, they produce an electrical current that can be stored in batteries or fed back into the grid, earning the owner credits that equate to free electricity from the utility company.

“It will run the meter backward,” Piper said.

The other kind of solar power is panels that are filled with glycol or other liquid antifreeze and are mounted in similar fashion as the PVs. The sun heats the liquid, which passes through a heat exchange device inside the building, transferring the heat to, typically, domestic hot water — the water used for showers and washing dishes.

Such systems require backup, Piper said. Sundog sells wood pellet boilers designed to be used in conjunction with solar systems.

Sundog sells and installs both kinds of solar panels. Surprisingly to many, he said, Maine does get enough hours of sunlight, averaged out over the year, to provide enough energy so that hot water and electricity solar systems will pay for themselves in savings in 6-10 years.

Maine’s latitude is more southerly than Germany’s, which derives nearly 20 percent of its power from solar sources, he said.

Maine receives an average of four hours of sunlight per day, according to Pi. While days like Thursday, when snow ruled the atmosphere, do little to produce energy from solar systems, a sunny day in July can produce plenty of electricity and heat, Piper said, the former of which can pay the utility bill in the winter.

Piper asks to review a customer’s electricity bill before designing a system. If the monthly bill is about $100, he recommends 28, 250-watt panels. The panels each measure 65 inches by 40 inches. With a 30-percent federal tax credit and a $2,000 state rebate, the total cost for installing such a system is about $10,000, Piper said.

Prices on photovoltaic hardware have dropped quite a bit from a year ago, he said. Still, the investment is significant. Piper said customers tend to be in their 50s “who have some extra resources.”

The Town Office in Searsmont, the Waldo County town where Piper and his family are moving soon, features an array of PV panels. Entities such as municipalities and schools are well-positioned to reap energy savings after the initial investment, he said.

Many customers choose to live well away from utility poles and embrace the solar systems because of the independence they provide. A recent installation was done in the Waldo County town of Jackson, he said.

Piper would like to see younger people be able to afford to install solar systems on new and newly purchased homes, but the cost can persuade would-be homeowners to spend their money on getting more square-footage of living space instead of an energy system, even one that pays for itself.

Efficiency Maine offers loans, he said, and tax credits or rebates also help new homeowners. Piper hopes Maine state government retains the current utility surcharge program that funds rebates for solar systems.

Sundog’s new building provides ample room for displaying and explaining the options, he said, as well as for storing the components. It’s a lot easier to stage the hardware for the installers to pick up and transport to the job site in the new building than in the small downtown storefront, Piper said.

Sundog also sells heat pumps and high-efficiency appliances such as freezers and refrigerators.

For information about Sundog Solar Store, call 548-1100 or visit sundogsolarstore.com.

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