LIMESTONE, Maine — On an old concrete parking lot next to a deserted building on the former Loring Air Force Base, there is something very exciting and environmentally friendly going on.
Combined with another 216 fixed-mount panels that went on line in the fall of 2012, the arrays generate enough electricity to power 55 Maine homes and offset 250 tons of carbon annually.
“We have all the ingredients we needed for a successful large-scale solar project,” LDA President Carl Flora said. “We have a well-developed power infrastructure in place and a lot of wide open spaces. Loring is a big place and is an excellent site for this.”
The power generated by the panels is purchased by Emera Maine through the existing power grid in a process known as “net metering,” which helps offset LDA’s overall energy bill.
The fixed-mount panels, known as Loring Solar I, are arranged in two rows on a lawn near LDA’s office building.
Loring Solar II, the tracking panels, were placed on a parking lot not far from the LDA building and went on line this past summer, according to Flora.
The newest dual-axel panels seem to operate with a mind of their own — they move in accordance with the seasons, daylight and even weather conditions.
“Each unit has GPS tracking installed on it,” Rich Simon, president of The Power Company, said. “When you install them, you get full-time feedback through the Internet on where they are on the planet and their relation to the track and arc of the sun.”
Once that information is programmed, the panels then follow the sun and position themselves to best capture its rays.
On days with strong winds, the panels will position themselves to be parallel to the ground to prevent any wind damage. They also can sense whether snow has piled up on their surface.
“If they get covered with snow, they will tilt until the snow slides off,” Flora said.
At night, they will lie flat, ready to “wake up” the next morning to track the sun as soon as it appears above the horizon, Simon said.
“I would love to place one of those in a field of sunflowers,” he said. “It would be so great to watch them move together.”
Sunflowers naturally follow the direction of the sun as it moves across the sky.
By following the movement of the sun, according to Simon, the efficiency of the panels is increased by 40 percent over fixed-mount arrays.
The panels are tied directly to the existing power grid, and Emera Maine purchases the solar-generated electricity, which offsets LDA’s power costs.
“The power goes directly into the grid,” Flora said. “Then it is netted against our use.”
LDA leases the panels from The Power Company, which is based in Washington, Maine, and installs solar arrays for third-party use.
In other words, Flora said, The Power Company paid for the $1.2 million project, owns the panels and benefits from any and all state or federal alternative energy tax credits or incentives.
At the end of six years — when those credits and incentives dry up — the LDA will have the option to purchase the panels or continue the lease agreement.
In the meantime, the LDA is making an annual lease payment of $54,689, or 95 percent of the panel’s electrical output.
So far, Flora said, the deal has resulted in only minor savings — about $3,000 a year — in LDA’s overall power bill. In fiscal year 2014, according to Donna Sturzl, LDA director of finance and accounting, the power bill totaled $125,700.
“It might not seem like a lot,” Flora said, referring to the savings generated by the solar project. “But it is a savings to us and does not cost us anything.”
Flora added that the solar power project comes down to more than dollars and cents.
“Why not do it?” he said. “It’s just kind of a neat project and it’s a great conversation starter that generates positive attention, and that’s important in attracting the kinds of businesses we want to draw here.”
Flora also spoke of possible educational opportunities.
“There also are a lot of intangible values here,” he said. “Job Corps is right nearby, and some of the students could learn to work on solar arrays. We would be happy to see local schools come for show-and-tell sessions.”
Should LDA decide to purchase the panels in six years, Flora said, preliminary estimates show the authority could see energy savings in the “tens of thousands of dollars” over the 20- to 25-year lifespan of the panels.
Loring Solar I and II combined is the largest solar project of its kind in the state, but Simon said a larger project — a 4,500-panel array being installed at Bowdoin College by the company Solar City — is expected to go on line later this year.
Simon started The Power Company in 2010 as an energy consultant and development company specializing in solar photovoltaic systems for commercial and industrial properties.
In addition to the lease payments, the company’s return on investments comes from federal tax incentives tied to alternative power installation.
In addition to the Loring projects, Simon is working with the Deer Ridge Farm apartments in Wiscasset, where six solar arrays are supplying 30 percent of the low-income units’ electricity needs.
“We are working toward having them at ‘net zero,’” Simons said. “At that point they will have enough panels to produce the amount of energy to equal what they would take from the grid.”
Simon plans on installing two additional arrays to get Deer Ridge Farm to that point.
He also is working with Matinicus Island officials on a grant application for a solar array to provide long-term, sustainable power to island residents who pay five times the energy rates as people on the mainland.
“We have designed a system for them that has solar energy production capabilities plus battery storage for that power,” Simon said. “This is the kind of project that fits our mission really well.”
Simon said his company does have plans for other projects in Maine but declined to discuss them yet.
He did say, however, he is pleased with how things are going at Loring.
“I enjoyed working up there,” Simon said. “The people have a real ‘let’s get it done’ attitude, and Carl [Flora] is a smart and receptive man who is trying to do more with energy development.”
To date Simon’s company has invested around $1.4 million in solar projects in Maine and he admits, in the big scheme of things, it is not a huge amount of money, but he is optimistic his company will continue to grow with the state’s energy needs.
“We are looking at the best path for solar development working with communities and nonprofits,” he said. “We are not a big company, but we are moving through what are kind of uncharted waters and we are proving it is doable: That is how business grows.”