In Pittsfield, a solar installer who has hired 10 local residents braces for the impact on his business, and maybe on his home town
By Tux Turkel, Staff Writer
Portland Press Herald news story
PITTSFIELD — Solar-electric modules, inverters and heat pumps are stacked on the floor of what once was a convenience store. Long abandoned, it’s being converted into a warehouse for Insource Renewables, a clean-energy startup that has been expanding in a region where traditional manufacturing jobs have been fading away.
Insource has grown in four years from a guy working out of his house to 10 employees who install solar panels from Farmington to Freeport. Last year it doubled its gross sales to $1.2 million and was on track to grow by 60 percent in 2016.
That goal is in question now. It’s not for lack of customers, said Vaughan Woodruff, the company’s owner, but because of politics in Augusta.
Standing in his warehouse in Pittsfield last week, Woodruff said he has $100,000 worth of projects in limbo. Instead of preparing for the busy summer installation season, he’s worrying about how to keep his workforce engaged.
“I’m weighing layoffs now,” he said. “I’m trying to figure out how to hedge our risks, without hurting our guys and their families.”
Woodruff has an eye on Augusta as the Legislature prepares to vote on a landmark solar energy development bill.
Supporters, mostly Democrats, say the plan could create up to 800 new jobs and help attract the next generation of workers to rural Maine towns such as Pittsfield. But Gov. Paul LePage and Republican leadership strongly oppose it, in part because it relies on a state financial incentive borne by electric customers. Known as net metering, that incentive is the state policy under which owners of solar-electric panels are compensated by utilities for the power they generate.
Cutting through the fog of competing cost estimates on the solar bill and sorting out the politics may be too much for most Mainers. But the mere possibility that net metering may go away or be modified already is having a chilling effect on business, Woodruff said.
That’s because if the bill fails, the future of net metering may be decided by the Public Utilities Commission. The timeline and outcome are uncertain, so some homeowners who signed up with Woodruff to go solar are waiting to see how everything shakes out.
“I can’t guarantee them that net metering will be grandfathered, and that’s how we built this company,” he said. “So why would people buy today, if they can wait?”
The impact of this uncertainty is being weighed by at least one lawmaker who represents Pittsfield in the Legislature.
Rep. Stanley Byron Short Jr., D-Pittsfield, said he’s familiar with Woodruff, praising him as a hardworking young man who’s investing in a local business. He’ll vote in favor of the solar bill.
“I’ll support his position,” Short said. “We’ve lost a lot of jobs in Pittsfield and we need to do what we can to help small businesses expand.”
Sen. Rodney Whittemore, R-Skowhegan, who also represents the district, didn’t respond to questions sent to him by email and also forwarded by the Senate Republican Majority Office.
HOPES FOR COMPANY, TOWN
For Woodruff, the direction of state solar policy will affect more than his company’s growth. It will test his commitment to his workforce, mostly young men, some of them, like him, with families and school-age children. And in a small but meaningful way, it could shape the future of his hometown, as it works to reinvent itself following a decade of factory closures.
After graduating from the University of Maine with a civil engineering degree in 1996, Woodruff left to work out West, eventually for a solar panel installer in Montana.
“But Maine was always pulling me back,” he said of his decision to move home with his wife and two stepsons, in 2007.
He returned to a town that lacked the vibrant feel he remembered from his youth, the result of a manufacturing base that has been slowly eroding across Maine. First to go was Pittsfield Woolen Yarns, one of the state’s last woolen mills. It lost the battle with low-price imports and closed in 2003. Five years later, SAS Shoemakers shut and took 145 jobs to Texas. The sprawling brick factory, formerly the Waverly Woolen Mill, stands vacant on 29 acres of prime riverfront at the edge of town.
From the parking lot outside his warehouse, Woodruff can look across the Sebasticook River and see the factory complex that until last year housed UTC Fire & Security, the town’s second-largest employer. It put 300 people out of work when it left.
Woodruff has no illusions about solar energy replacing all this economic activity. But he feels some responsibility to try.
Woodruff’s family helped settle the area. His grandfather was a widely known veterinarian and his mother was the first woman mayor of Pittsfield. Woodruff currently serves on the planning board and has helped found a community group called Heart of Pittsfield that’s working to revitalize the town.
“My family is civic-minded,” said Woodruff, who is 41. “The messages pounded into me as a kid made it difficult to come back, see a community struggling so significantly, and do nothing.”
Woodruff set up shop downtown, in a 19th-century former schoolhouse that’s now a town-owned office complex. Woodruff knows his work space well. It used to be the principal’s office when he went to grammar school here.
Woodruff has a lot of pride in his hometown and passion for Maine, observed Ray Berthelette, who moved here 10 years ago from Massachusetts and was instrumental in forming Heart of Pittsfield.
“He wants to see Pittsfield and Maine be forerunners in alternative energy,” Berthelette said.
A small business that’s focused on new technology is a good fit for a community aiming to become a destination for commerce and culture in this part of central Maine, a Heart of Pittsfield goal.
“It’s one more thing that can help put Pittsfield on the map,” Berthelette said.
Pittsfield already has some things going for it that would be the envy of other former mill towns.
The downtown business district is dominated by the corporate headquarters of Cianbro Corp. It’s one of the nation’s largest construction companies, with 4,000 employees. Cianbro also is Pittsfield’s largest employer, with 360 people on site. The philanthropy and civic engagement of its founding family and current executives is legendary here, and helps support community institutions and major employers that include Sebasticook Valley Health and its 25-bed hospital and the Maine Central Institute school, which attracts students from around the area and the world.
At the town office, the Pittsfield Economic Expansion Corporation would like to lure more major employers to fill the empty manufacturing spaces. The idea of a clean-energy company growing in Pittsfield, though, is barely on the radar. Kathryn Ruth, the town manager, said she remembers when Woodruff was working by himself and installed solar hot-water panels on the town office roof as part of a new heating system. She knew little about the growth of his business in the last couple of years, but is interested.
“Any tech jobs are important,” she said. “Any industry that’s up and coming, we want to support them.”
She also was curious about the demographics of Woodruff’s workforce, and expressed the view that the way to bring in young, educated people is to offer jobs that are engaging and give them a sense of contributing to the local economy.
“It’s hard to find those jobs now in central Maine,” she said.
EMPLOYEES ON EDGE
Ben Holt thinks he found that sort of job.
Holt grew up in Skowhegan and graduated two years ago with a degree in sustainable energy management from Unity College. He started as an intern at Insource Renewables and since has been hired full time as a solar and heat pump installer.
But Holt, who is 23, said he’s worried about his future here and his ability to continue working in the sector.
“I’d rather stay in Maine, but if there’s no job security, I may have to go out of state,” he said.
Simon Fitts grew up in the Pittsfield area and was living with his wife in the Midwest when they decided they wanted to raise their family in Maine. He has been the company’s accounting manager for two years.
“We’ve seen a heck of a lot of growth,” he said. “But right now, we’re coming to a screeching halt.”
Fitts, who is 34, also is anxious about his job. He has two young children and a home with a mortgage in Newport. His wife is a nurse in Bangor.
“I’ve got to go where the jobs are,” he said, contemplating the possibility of looking for work in Bangor.
Woodruff’s full-time workers have vacation and health insurance. Their wages range from $15 to $27.50 an hour. The company also has brought in a retired paper worker looking to keep his hand in the labor market, an imperative in a state with an aging workforce and little native population growth.
With the new worker comes some perspective.
Rick Parkhurst retired from the Sappi paper mill in Hinckley after 37 years at the wastewater plant. He went to high school at Maine Central Institute and remembers when his classmates followed the well-worn path to area paper mills or factories. That’s history now, he said, but clean energy today – like papermaking was in the 20th century – is a skilled, technical job that offers opportunity to a new generation of graduates.
“I feel bad for Vaughan,” Parkhurst said, standing outside the equipment warehouse. “I know this is eating him up. He wants this business to grow. He has a vision for this town.”