by Charles Eichacker
Ellsworth American news story
A first-time visitor to Will Collins’ two-story home in Steuben might easily miss the solar panels on his roof.
For one thing, you might be distracted by the sign in his driveway warning of crossing bears. Then, at least for a reporter coming in early February, 3 feet of snow covered everything.
Fortunately for anyone with the slightest case of large mammal phobia, the sign is a joke (a play on the name of Will’s son, Bjørn, which means “bear” in Norwegian).
And on the February morning, Will had shoveled enough snow off the southern half of his roof to expose 12 shiny, black photovoltaic panels.
Will, a carpenter and former contractor who has more recently served as a stay-at-home dad and freelance crafter of urns, had those panels installed in the fall of 2013, after building his shingled abode in 2000. He’d wanted to go renewable earlier, he said, but the finances only lined up in the last couple years.
And how well they lined up: when interest rates dropped after the 2008 recession, Will and his wife, Susan Collins (an occupational therapist not related to the U.S. senator), reasoned they could bundle the costs of a solar installation into a refinanced mortgage.
Even better, the price of solar panels had come down and, thanks to a rebate from Efficiency Maine, the couple were able to pay $6,905 for a project that retailed for $11,865.
Efficiency Maine is a quasi-state agency that marshals funds to homeowners and businesses making energy-saving upgrades. The solar installation also qualified the couple for a 30 percent federal tax credit.
ReVision Energy, which is based in Liberty, performed the installation work. To Will’s relief, he said, the project manager was nice and “seemed like a fussy kind of guy” who wanted to get all the details right.
In the two years since, the home’s panels have required no maintenance aside from the occasional snow shoveling — and even that’s not always necessary, Will said.
One perk of shoveling that morning, he added, was afterward getting to jump off the roof into the pillowy plume of snow below.
Unlike standalone solar systems, their setup is connected to the broader electric grid, which they occasionally draw on during cloudier months such as December and January.
In two years, Will said, they’ve taken the same amount of electricity from the grid as they would have in just one month before installing the panels. Between the energy savings and the refinanced mortgage, he said they’ve broken even on the investment.
He’s monitored their usage on a meter in their basement that’s connected to the panels via a wire through the closets in their house. They also had to install an inverter that converts the current from the photovoltaic panels into a usable alternating current.
Besides Will and Susan, the other two residents are their children, a 12-year-old son (the crossing bear) and a 10-year-old daughter, who both go to Ella Lewis School.
Now, the solar energy they don’t use throughout the year is fed back into the grid. The system is complemented by a wood stove to heat their home (which has super-insulated, 10-inch-thick walls) and an on-demand propane water heater.
The Collinses’ approach is just one example of ways that Mainers are upgrading their homes to not just save on energy costs, which can be volatile during cold Maine winters, but also cut their usage of fossil fuels.
Nearly all climate scientists — 97 percent of them, by NASA’s calculation — agree the Earth’s temperatures are rising because of carbon released into the air by humans since the Industrial Revolution.
It’s Efficiency Maine’s goal to help with those investments. Whether it’s installing renewable systems such as solar panels or geothermal heat pumps, or simply replacing old lights with more efficient LEDs, a range of home improvements could qualify Maine residents for their rebates.
Those savings are funded by both utility companies and state, regional and federal contributions, according to Michael Stoddard, executive director of Efficiency Maine.
Speaking to The Ellsworth American in December, Stoddard pointed out that their programs reduced electricity costs in Maine by around $185 million in fiscal year 2014.
“It’s going to be a win-win,” Stoddard said of anyone considering efficiency upgrades. “There are benefits for everyone on the grid, to say nothing of the role it plays in achieving clean air objectives.”
For Will Collins on a powdery February morning, there also was a very ancillary benefit to his solar panels.
When his kids got home from school, they too would get a chance to jump off the roof into the soft mountain of snow he’d made below — before doing their homework under solar-powered lights.