As interest in solar power grows in Maine, a local group hopes to band homeowners and small businesses together in a purchasing group to get a bulk discount on solar electric systems.
Solarize Mid Maine is gauging interest in the project, starting with an information session Wednesday evening at Colby College in Waterville. The project is targeted at Unity, Winslow, Vassalboro, Waterville, Oakland, Belgrade, Benton and Fairfield, but could include more if there’s an interest, organizers say.
The idea is to bring together a group of people from across central Maine who are interested in installing solar power systems and contract with one of the state’s solar providers to make a bulk purchase.
A similar project was successfully launched in Freeport last year, said John Reuthe, who is heading up the project as part of the Sustain Mid-Maine Coalition. In Freeport, about 40 households entered into a purchasing agreement with Insource Renewables, a solar company from Pittsfield.
The Solarize Freeport customers saved between 10 percent and 12 percent on their new solar power systems by making the bulk purchase, Reuthe said.
“That doesn’t sound like much” but can really make a difference when installing a system that can cost between $10,000 and $40,000, Reuthe said. Solarize Mid Maine has been laying the groundwork for the project over the summer, and so far about 80 people have said they would be interested in the program. But Reuthe wants to pull together at least 400 before putting out a request for proposals for the purchase.
Ideally, the group could get into an agreement with a company before federal tax credits for solar power lapse in 2016, Reuthe said.
“We’re kind of feeling our way along right now,” Reuthe said. “We keep looking to see if there is enough interest in it, and I think there is.”
The type of photovolatic electricity systems Solarize Mid Maine is considering are suited for residential and small-business customers. They include roof-installed solar panels that feed energy into the electricity grid. The power generated by the panels is counted as a credit toward the owner’s energy bill. If the power generated equals the amount the customer uses, there is only a minimal fee, around $11, to the power company. But if the customer uses more power than he generates, he would be charged for the overage by the company. Customers have 12 months to use excess energy generated, so power built up over the summer can be drawn down over the darker winter months, Reuthe said.
Getting a discount on a bulk purchase can help overcome the barrier of the high price for solar equipment, an important consideration in central Maine communities, which are generally less affluent than communities farther south in the state, like Freeport, Reuthe said.
In order to overcome that and gather a strong group of purchasers, Solarize Mid Maine has cast the net wide, targeting eight communities, but will be open to residents in other communities if there’s enough interest.
Interest in solar power recently has been gaining in Maine. Residents in some communities, such as Wayne and South Paris, have invested together in small solar farms to power a handful of households. A Yarmouth company is considering a massive 100-acre commercial solar power project in Winslow.
The Solarize model has been around for a while, and there are programs in other New England states, including Connecticut, Massachusetts and parts of New Hampshire.
While Maine has been slower to embrace the concept, the idea is catching on, said Vaughan Woodruff, owner of Insource Renewables, the company contracted for Solarize Freeport.