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Solar Power - A Hot Topic

Here in Maine, the solar power debate is heating up.  This spring expanding the use of solar power for condominiums; homeowners; and small businesses in Maine is a hot topic up in Augusta’s Legislature.  It is becoming a classic case of Goliath v. David; Big Business v. Small; and House v. Senate.

Last January the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) decided on a contentious ruling in January, 2017 on how to compensate homeowners for the solar power they generate often referred to as “net energy billing or net metering”.   As it stands now, if there are no changes, this becomes law in 2018.  Interesting enough, neither side in the solar battle wants this PUC ruling to go into force.

Net metering is being fought by the large utilities across the country as it favors roof-top solar panel installations as compared to large grid-scale solar ventures favored by Maine’s governor and Maine’s largest investor-owned utilities, Central Maine Power and Emera Maine.  This has resulted in Maine falling behind in the other New England states in small-scale solar installations and development while this bi-partisan issue rages in Augusta.  Without a firm solar energy policy in the state solar installers and buyers of solar system are not willing to invest in the resources necessary for small-scale solar generation to reach its potential.

To create a stable solar policy and address the concerns of all parties to the debate, two bills are being offered to the legislature this spring.  The first bill, which is sponsored by Representative Seth Berry (D), maintains the full financial net metering incentives while offering rebates (estimated at $70/ month) to motivate both small businesses and homeowners to generate more energy with solar systems.  This bill has been backed by many green organizations and conservation groups.

The second solar energy bill on the legislature’s agenda has been sponsored by Senator Tom Saviello (R).  His bill attempts to maintain all of the financial incentives of net-metering while the PUC determines how to use smart electric meters to find out the true value of solar energy during different times of the day and year.  Attempts by both sides of this debate to estimate this value has resulted in the past widely different assumptions and conclusions.

The passage of one of these bills and the future of solar power is important to Maine’s condominium communities as an organized ‘village’ such as a condo complex can take advantage of economies of scale while earning the benefits net metering incentives can bring to a condominium while helping the environment.

Not only has the price for these PV solar panels been 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.  With inexpensive electrical power available condominiums can consider adding fueling stations for battery driven automobiles further reducing fossil based fuel consumption and fostering cleaner air.

So with all of these benefits for increasing the use of solar power, it would be reasonable to ask why the state’s governor and his energy experts are against small-scale solar energy generation growth.  The answer is their belief the financial benefits to solar power users outweighs the cost burden placed on other electrical energy consumers who have to bear the full burden of the cost to maintain the total energy grid infrastructure.  The problem with this form of logic is the analysis is based on unmeasured solar generation costs.

If anything history has shown, when government attempts to interfere with free market forces and technology advancement the ordinary consumer suffers.  The future of solar power generation and other non-polluting energy sources should be of concern to all Maine citizens.  We would be well served to pay attention to our legislature as it deliberates this important issue.

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

Published in Condo Media, June, 2017

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