Aroostook County, a region with people of modest incomes and long, cold winters, seems neither rich nor warm enough for solar energy.
But northern Maine may be one of the best places on the East Coast to turn sunlight into electricity, and it can be affordable for the middle class, argues Dale Roy, an electrician and one of The County’s two main solar installers.
“You have to go all the way down to Virginia to get better zone,” he said of the region’s solar potential. On average, across winter, spring, summer and fall, northern Maine gets 4.2 hours of daily usable solar radiation that can be converted into electricity. Mid-Atlantic states such as Connecticut, New York and Pennsylvania might be warmer, but they have more smog and less usable sunlight — about 3.5 hours on average — according to Roy.
The cold also is an advantage. “The majority of people think we have a lot less sun than Florida, which we do, but that’s not better for solar,” Roy said. The silicon wafers and electrical conductors in solar panels thrive in the cold and run more efficiently in the winter, even though there are fewer hours of sunlight, said Roy, who has panels on his home in Fort Kent.
Roy has installed more than 20 solar power arrays and is working on what will be one of Aroostook County’s largest solar arrays, a 75-kilowatt panel array at LaBrie Farms in St. Agatha. The former Navy nuclear electronics technician is among electricians nationwide earning money, if not all their livelihoods, installing solar panels since the late 2000s, when a 30 percent federal tax credit for residential solar and a confluence of global economic trends made solar energy significantly more affordable.
“I couldn’t survive on it,” Roy said of his solar business, Maine Solar and Wind LLC. He also has real estate and snow removal enterprises. But, he added, “if my business had been in Portland, I’d be a rich man today.”
Roy first grew interested in solar power in 2001, when he was doing electrical work for a customer with a rooftop solar setup, through a Massachusetts company.
“There was nobody doing that around here back then,” Roy said. In 2006, another customer asked him if he could do a solar installation. “I looked into it and got qualified.” At that time, Roy claims he was the only certified solar panel installer north of Blue Hill and one of four in Maine.
Roy saw interest in solar power grow in 2006 and 2007, as gasoline and oil prices reached historic highs and people looked for alternatives to fossil fuel. That interest in solar dropped when the Great Recession hit, but it started coming back after 2010, as people who could afford an upfront purchase could get a good long-term deal on new, more affordable solar panels that could return the cost of the investment in 10 years.
“In the late 2000s, the Chinese got into the market and flooded it” with the new solar panels, Roy said. A large global supply sent the cost of a 250-watt photovoltaic panel from around $1,000 to $250 in the course of two years, Roy said. “It was unbelievable.”
In Woodland, northwest of Caribou, Jean and Stephen Cashman hired Roy to install 30 solar panels on their roof in July 2014. “It’s partly an environmental decision. It’s something we believe in,” Jean Cashman, an associate professor of social work at the University of Maine Presque Isle, said. Her husband is a retired soil conservationist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Customers such as the Cashmans can afford upfront costs for residential solar, but the investment starts to pay off and is recouped within as few as seven years, Roy said.
If the panels are hooked up to the grid, the homeowners use “net metering” to get credits from their utility for their panels producing more energy than their homes consume and then automatically redeem them when there isn’t enough constant solar.
At the Loring Commerce Center, at the former Loring Air Force base, a new 250-kilowatt solar farm run by The Power Co. of Washington, Maine, essentially is powering around 55 homes, producing electricity that feeds into the grid and through net metering reduces energy costs for the Loring Development Authority.
The Cashmans’ monthly electric bill is around $6 to $10 per month, compared to between $90 and $120 in the summer and $190 and $200 in the winter before their solar array, Jean Cashman said. “I’ve been surprised. Even on cloudy days, that thing is still producing a lot of power.”
According to Efficiency Maine, a 4.5-kilowatt (or 4,500-watt) photovoltaic system costs about $17,000 in total to purchase and install.
“The thing that holds people back is the initial cost,” Roy said. “It is a bit pricy. A lot of people don’t have the money” upfront.
But Roy argues it’s a good investment for a long-term homeowner that almost certainly will pay off within 10 years. He said one customer was weighing an investment of his savings of around $17,000, which was earning $80 in interest per year in the bank. Now the homeowner saves about $80 per month because his electric bill is only around $10, Roy said. A few of his customers have taken out home equity loans and use those savings to pay it off, with the promise of virtually free electricity for 15 years after the initial 10-year pay off.
The federal tax credit can help with that, offering a credit of 30 percent worth the cost as a tax credit, though that can only be used as a tax payment offset and isn’t helpful to homeowners who don’t pay much in taxes. The tax credit also is set to expire in 2017.
But there still are options that help make solar affordable, including grants for businesses, said Todd Maynard, an electrician from Fort Fairfield who runs County Energy Solutions LLC, with business partner Dan Ayoob.
“There’s a solar [system] for anybody’s budget. The lending authorities are starting to recognize that it is a benefit,” Maynard said. “We’ve done jobs from two solar panels to a couple hundred.”
Maynard, who also does other electrical work and teaches at Northern Maine Community College in Presque Isle, doesn’t have a solar array on his main home — he said he has been too busy. He does have an off-grid solar array at his North Woods camp and a new array at County Energy’s building in Fort Fairfield.
His company received a $6,700 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help support a new 6.8 kilowatt dual-axis tracking photovoltaic system, a large panel that moves with the sun throughout the day to capture energy.
Maynard estimates the panel will produce 11 megawatts per year — “more power than we can consume.”
Maynard is trying to pitch the potential of solar to businesses in Aroostook County, arguing the consistent source of electricity could help offset other operational uncertainties that plague companies.
“You are now taking control of your electrical costs for the life of your system, which is expected to be 25 years,” Maynard said. “That’s a good position to be in if you can control one of your variables in business.” Maynard said he is working with school districts to look for funding that would offset their initial costs in adopting solar installations.