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Reach for the Sun

Let me suggest a voyage into the future.  A future for a clean, sustainable solar system for your condominium.  Some might suggest this should be referred to science fiction because of their own experiences of trying to make any BIG change in a condominium. However, for the moment, let us assume the roadblocks of condo document covenants; unit owner voting; state regulations; and boards’ reluctance to invest funds can be overcome.

These points of potential disagreement are big assumptions to make but let us also assume some basic points of agreement. Given a choice, most condos would agree to a lower electric bill; clean solar power if it did not require solar panels on the roofs; and increased unit market values due to a modern, up-to-date image attracting prime unit owners.  The new solar technology may be able to deliver on these assumptions.

Today’s solar equipment is not your dad’s solar equipment.  In the recent past when you spoke of solar panels you were speaking of solar thermal panels to produce domestic hot water.  Though these systems are still available the real excitement these days is PV (photovoltaic) solar panels producing electricity.  Electricity can produce many more benefits ranging from not only lighting the home but also heating and cooling the home with efficient electric mini-split heat pump systems to even charging your new electric car.

Not only is the price for these PV solar panel dropping rapidly over the past few years, the methods of maximizing their usefulness in a community environment is becoming more viable with the newest technology allowing both direct and scattered sunlight to create electricity and by use of power inverters so electric power can be directed into batteries or the utility grid to sell back excess electricity.  These PV panels can be grouped into arrays called micro-grids that can collect electricity and distribute to not just one user but a community of users.

These micro-grids can be located in a wide range of locations.  They do not have to be on top of roofs which are objectionable to many.  Instead, they can be located in empty areas around the condo complex.   As an example, one of these ‘solar farms’ can feed two buildings with four units in each.  Buildings such as these are fueled today by shared propane tanks in the backyard, why not solar arrays?

These types of PV solar arrays can provide electricity to fuel common elements such as the club house; street lights; and hallways light fixtures.  Unit owners could opted into becoming a member of a solar farm and own a portion of the panel array (called a share) or they could opt out.  Those owners who become members of the array can then improve their current old heating system by converting to an electric, ductless mini-split system producing both heating and cooling which they never had before and adding value to their unit.

If you think Maine is too far north to take advantage of solar power, remember Maine has the same sunlight intensity as the French Mediterranean or Houston, Texas and is only 10% less than Jacksonville, Florida.  Countries north of Maine, such as Germany and Denmark, are racing to add PV solar panels to supplement their wind farms to become 100% independent of fossil fuel on optimal days.

In addition to the federal tax credit for solar power installations, Maine allows net-metering for these solar array systems.  This means unit owners or condo communities can further reduce their utility bill by selling back excess electricity to the utility companies.  Even with the low current cost of fossil fuels, the typical array still has a payback period of less than ten years and after that the electricity is virtually free.  Considering the equipment has a useful life of twenty-five years, the benefits can be significant.

Solar power is a hot issue around the country.  Major polluters are fighting solar power expansion in virtually every state capital.  Currently Maine’s Public Utility Commission (PUC) is placing before the legislature its recommendations for future solar regulations.  Attempts are underway to limit these solar farm communities to only 9 members (Vermont’s member limit is 99).

As I said earlier, I am not suggesting this fanciful trip through the solar system is not without it pitfalls and obstacles.  Anyone who has witnessed the struggle of a condominium board over the simple request of a unit owner trying to attach a ham radio antenna to his condo unit knows communities are like big ships that take a long time to change course.  What I am hoping is these ideas may stimulate a few brave souls to venture where no person has gone before and reach for the sun.



Article written by Jack Carr, P.E., R.S., LEED AP, Criterium Engineers

Published in Condo Media, April, 2016

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