Tapping the power of the sun

Laurie and Bob Brown didn't care, frankly, if they ever got electricity. 

Jose Leiva/Sun Journal

Ben and Bonnie Lounsbury of Auburn generate electricity with solar panels on top of their barn.

Jose Leiva/Sun Journal

Laurie Brown stands on the landing of her spiral staircase at her off-the-grid home in Upton.

Jose Leiva/Sun Journal

Laurie Brown lights a gas lamp in her living room in Upton.

Interested in solar power? Experts recommend you:
- First, make your home as energy efficient as possible.
- Research your solar options. Thermal and photovoltaic are popular, but there are other systems.
- Talk to people already living with solar. Ask about pros and cons, expenses, challenges and unexpected benefits.
- Get estimates from several certified solar installers. Price and experience can vary greatly. Information on solar energy and links to lists of certified installers can be found on Efficiency Maine's website: http://www.efficiencymaine.com/renewable-energy/solar.

Incentives for installing solar power systems:
- A 30 percent federal tax credit, up to $500 per 0.5 kW of power capacity. http://www.energystar.gov/index.cfm?c=tax_credits.tx_index
- Various Efficiency Maine programs, including up to $1,500 on the cost of thermal systems and up to $2,000 on photovoltaic systems. http://www.efficiencymaine.com/renewable-energy/solar
- PACE program allows homeowners to borrow money for energy improvements, including solar installation. The loan is paid back in installments through a special assessment on the property. Municipalities must be authorized to offer the program to residents. FMI, contact your town or visit http://www.efficiencymaine.com/pace.

Want to see solar power in action?
On Saturday, Oct. 2, several places in Maine will participate in the American Solar Energy Society's National Solar Tour. For more information and to find participating homes and businesses, go to: http://www.nationalsolartour.org/.

In their Upton camp-turned-home, they were perfectly happy reading by gas lamps, using a propane stove and running a generator to power her wood-burning tools. It was a simple, close-to-the-Earth lifestyle, and they loved it.

"I've had so many people (say), 'This is the way to live,'" Laurie Brown said.

But without electricity, the Browns couldn't get a regular mortgage after their construction loan matured. The local power company agreed to connect them to the nearest line — a half-mile away — at a cost of $24,000. The Browns laughed. They didn't have that much money to spend, not on electricity.

A county away, Ben and Bonnie Lounsbury were perfectly happy having electricity in their Auburn home. The convenience of a dishwasher, the entertainment of a TV, the easy availability of light with the flip of a switch — it was a modern lifestyle, and they loved it. But their carbon footprint worried them. The ardent environmentalists didn't want to keep spending the world's limited resources, not on electricity.

"People want their children to live in a decent world," Ben Lounsbury said. "I think the problem is, many people don't understand how our current lifestyles are ruining the world for our children."

This spring, for different reasons, with different finances and different needs, both couples came to the same solution: solar panels.

While solar energy isn't making the headlines that wood pellets and wind power have, a small and growing number of Mainers swear by it. They laud solar's clean energy production, its long-term financial savings and its ease of use. There are challenges, of course — upfront costs can be high, panels don't work everywhere and don't work at all during extended cloudy periods — but solar's champions say those challenges can be overcome.

"It works for us," Brown said. "It feels totally wonderful."

'We just didn't need it'

Solar power has been around for decades, gaining or losing attention depending on energy prices.

President Jimmy Carter installed thermal solar panels at the White House in the 1970s, when oil prices were high. In the 1980s, as oil prices fell, President Ronald Regan took out the panels as part of a roof repair and didn't return them.

Those White House panels ended up at Unity College in Maine, where they were used for 15 years to heat hot water in the cafeteria. Recently, an environmental activist and some students from the college took one of the panels to President Barack Obama's administration, hoping the administration would accept the panel and signal its support for solar power. 

"We didn't get that," said Unity graduate Jason Reynolds.

Still, proponents extol the virtues of solar, no matter what the price of oil and no matter how great — or minimal — the support of others. They regard solar as a clean, efficient way to produce energy, particularly in Maine, where most homes are connected to a traditional electric grid and 80 percent rely on oil for heat despite the fact that, they say, Maine sees sun 200 days a year and gets as much sun as Germany, a solar leader.

"Here in America, we're way behind," said solar advocate Peter Rubins, who does marketing and sales for Assured Solar Energy, a solar design and installation company in North Yarmouth.

It's unclear exactly how many people in Maine use solar power, though John Kerry, the head of the Governor's Office of Energy Independence and Security, estimated the percentage is in the single digits. Though the percentage is growing, "that's still a small number," he said.

For those who do use solar power, two systems are most popular: thermal and photovoltaic. Thermal systems provide hot water. Photovoltaic systems provide electricity. Thermal can cost $6,000 to $10,000 and provide most of the hot water for a family of four. Experts say the cost can be recouped in seven to 10 years. Photovoltaic typically costs $12,000 to $40,000, depending on how much electricity the system must produce. Experts say it can take 15 to 18 years to recoup that cost.

"Then your electricity is free, and it's going to keep being free," Rubins said.

Both systems can last about 25 years, sometimes longer.

While free electricity is a nice perk to most solar customers, it wasn't what drew the Browns in Upton. They enjoyed their electric-free lifestyle.

"We decided we just didn't need it," Laurie Brown said.

The Browns built their summer camp in Upton in 2001 and turned it into a year-round home in 2007. Working on the home themselves, they turned the cottage with an outhouse into an open-concept, two-bedroom house with one bathroom and a three-story turret accessible by a spiral staircase. They reveled in the deeply rural location, marveling at the moose that wandered through their backyard, enjoying the view of mountains in New Hampshire, relishing the fact that their closest neighbor — her brother — lived half a mile away.

The couple used a wood and coal stove for heat, and propane to run their lights, refrigerator and stove. A propane generator provided power for those few things they couldn't run without electricity, including power tools, a sewing machine and a computer.

Laurie Brown had grown up without electricity and didn't mind not having it as an adult. Bob Brown always had electricity but enjoyed his Upton lifestyle enough to go without it.

Then came the mortgage lenders, demanding that the Browns get electricity to qualify for a loan.

"We said, 'But why? At least we won't have an electrical fire,'" Brown said.

But lenders wouldn't budge. 

The couple considered hooking into the closest Central Maine Power pole, but the $24,000 cost was money the couple didn't have and wouldn't have wanted to spend on electricity, even if they did. They also looked into a full solar power system, but that would have cost nearly as much.

So last spring, they found Lee Solar, a Dover-Foxcroft company that was willing to install a small system with six panels and a battery backup for just over $9,000. Perched on the roof of their shed, the panels provide enough energy to run a washer and dryer, sewing machine, radio, computer, basement freezer, a few lights and tools for decorative wood burning. The Browns can't run everything at once, but they say that's not a problem. 

"I'm just careful," Brown said. "I don't do my laundry at night (when there's no sun) and I don't do my laundry if it's been raining for three days, unless I'm out of clothes."

While the couple's home is generally low-tech — no TV, microwave or even a toaster — a corner of the dirt-floor basement is decidedly state-of-the-art, equipped with solar monitors, lines that distribute power and a dozen 6-volt, deep-cycle golf cart batteries that store the electricity from the panels. A small gauge in the living area tells the Browns how much power they have at any given moment. They still have their generator as a backup.

The transition hasn't been completely smooth. Lightning knocked out their solar grid when they failed to safeguard it from the storm, leaving them without power for three weeks until they got a replacement for the converter that was fried. They don't have any power to waste, so they put their freezer on a timer, shutting off the appliance at night when the panels don't get sun and turning it on again during the day.

And if they want to get all the modern conveniences, they'll have to get more panels to supply the power. But for now, that's not an issue. Their ultimate goal: live comfortably without the things they don't really need.

"I don't care if I ever have another microwave," Brown said.

'A nice, sunny year'

While the Browns are happy with their trade-off — low-cost solar power in exchange for a limited supply — others want a more conventional lifestyle.

In Auburn, Ben and Bonnie Lounsbury didn't like where their power was coming from.

"I wouldn't say I'm consumed by guilt, but I feel guilty enough about even my current lifestyle that I feel I need to try to push my carbon footprint to zero," Ben Lounsbury said.

Over the years, the Lounsburys have tried to make their 72-year-old house as energy efficient as possible, installing thick window coverings that could be raised or lowered like blinds, closing off unused rooms so they didn't waste heat and improving insulation.

Last November they installed a pair of heat pumps, replacing their decades-old oil furnace with a more environmentally friendly system that pulls heat out of even the coldest air. The pumps worked well, but they doubled the electricity the couple was using. 

Ardent environmentalists, the Lounsburys always liked the idea of solar power, but they worried about running out of electricity when there was no sun. About a year and a half ago, they learned they could connect a solar power system to their regular power grid, feeding CMP electricity when their solar panels generated more than they could use and drawing electricity from CMP when they needed it.

The Browns have batteries to deal with overflow and storage; the Lounsburys have a CMP meter. 

"CMP is my battery," Ben Lounsbury said.

Last spring, the couple spent $52,000 — minus about $17,000 in government incentives — to install 33 panels on the south-facing section of their old barn roof. The installer evaluated the roof and estimated the panels there would generate about 7,000 kilowatts of electricity a year, half the power needed to run the Lounsburys' four-bedroom, three-bathroom house and the heat pumps.

In four months, the system has generated more than 4,900 kilowatts, putting it on track to exceed that 7,000-kilowatt estimate.

"It's been a good year. A nice, sunny year," Lounsbury said.

Although the transition has been smooth, Lounsbury said he's prepared for issues, including extended cloudy periods that could drop his power generation significantly. So he's planning to make his home even more energy efficient, with new insulation in the attic and a new, more efficient freezer. 

But one thing the Lounsburys won't do is drastically alter their lifestyle. They live with an array of modern conveniences, including two computers, a dishwasher, an electric stove, a microwave and TV. They can't see giving up those luxuries.

"I'm hooked on them, Lounsbury said. "I want to try to make enough power so I can use those things it would be hard to live without."

Their ultimate goal: Add more panels and produce enough electricity to supply all of their needs, including, at some point, the power to charge an electric car. 

"Ultimately, I'd like to get my carbon footprint to zero," Lounsbury said.

Pros and cons

New developments in solar power benefited both the Browns and the Lounsburys, including technology that has made the panels cheaper and better and government incentives that helped lower the cost.

But even environmentalists and solar experts warn that solar still isn't for everyone. Not yet. 

"It still remains a challenging technology," said Kerry at the Governor's Office of Energy Independence and Security. 

Technology has improved, but homeowners still need a sunny, unobstructed spot to place panels or they won't work well. They need a backup system for electricity, whether the conventional power grid, a generator or something else. And they need money, because even with incentives — including a 30 percent federal tax credit and $1,000 or more from Efficiency Maine— solar can cost more than many Mainers can afford. 

"You don't get nothing for nothing, no matter what you do," said Lee Goggin, who owns Lee Solar and has maintained his own solar power system since the 1980s.

Although a vocal proponent of solar, Goggin acknowledges it has drawbacks: "Praying the sun comes out every day."

So far, both the Lounsburys and the Browns say, for them, it's been money well-spent.

"I really, really love this place," Brown said. "I love living here."

ltice@sunjournal.com

Jose Leiva/Sun Journal

Ben Lounsbury of Auburn powers his home with solar panels on top of his barn.

Jose Leiva/Sun Journal

Solar panels placed on top of a shed provide electricity for Bob and Laurie Brown of Upton.

Jose Leiva/Sun Journal

A homemade sign marks the road where Bob and Laurie Brown live off the grid in Upton.

Jose Leiva/Sun Journal

Gold cart batteries that store the power from solar panels help provide electricity for Bob and Laurie Brown, allowing them to live off the grid in Upton.

Jose Leiva/Sun Journal

Laurie Brown shows the batteries that store the power from her home's solar panels.

Jose Leiva/Sun Journal

Laurie Brown and her husband Bob with their dog, Pippi, live off the grid in Upton and generate their own electricity using solar panels.

Jose Leiva/Sun Journal

Laurie Brown cooks on a gas stove and uses a stove-top toaster, coffee pot and tea kettle living off the grid in Upton.

Jose Leiva/Sun Journal

Bob and Laurie Brown with their dog, Pippi, generate their own electricity using solar panels and a series of batteries. A wood stove in the middle of their living room heats their Upton home.

Jose Leiva/Sun Journal

A meter in the Lounsbury garage in Auburn records the electricity generated from the solar panels.

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Comments

Robert Cook's picture

Solar Power

Reducing your carbon footprint is a foolish way to justify your costly investment
in solar technology. Out of 100,000 molecules of air there are only approximately 38
molecules of carbon. It would take 5 years at the present rate of generation to add one molecule of carbon to that mix. If it makes you feel better to invest that kind of money to reduce your carbon footprint do it. At least be honest with yourself. You are not making any difference overall that can be measured.

Dan Moody's picture

LOVE IT

To hell with MR. Obama rejecting the solar panel idea for the White House? But MRS. Obama has a garden at the White House. /!!

 's picture

OBAMA an environmentalist LMAO

It surprised the folks at Unity College that Obama rejected the solar panel idea for the White House? Obama is about as legitamate and environmentalist as Al Gore with his big energy sucking house and private jet. Obama is about as much an environmentalist as he is an economist, an administrator and qualified to be President. So the folks at Unity should not have been surprised when Obama passed on the solar at the White House offer.

 's picture

For Rush or Beck to influence

For Rush or Beck to influence me I would have to be listening to/watching them, since I am doing neither they cannot influence me. It amazes me that the Donkey Farm believes that since they are mindless drones who are incapable of independent thought and can only repeat, (cut and past or copy) what others have said, that the rest of us are also incapable of independent, racianal, reasonable, researched, critical thought. Most of the world, (TRON, Voisine, Mainebob, Mainewoods, Spirit of the Mountain T, VERITAS, lisan180 to name a few excluded) are very capable of digging out the facts, assessing and forming our own opinions.

 's picture

OBAMA an environmentalist LMAO

It surprised the folks at Unity College that Obama rejected the solar panel idea for the White House? Obama is about as legitamate and environmentalist as Al Gore with his big energy sucking house and private jet. Obama is about as much an environmentalist as he is an economist, an administrator and qualified to be President. So the folks at Unity should not have been surprised when Obama passed on the solar at the White House offer.

Doreen Sheive's picture

publicity stunt

First of all taking one solar panel to D.C. was ridiculous. Secondly, they did not communicate with the White House before setting off on a wasted trip. I can only hope that they did not spend Unity College money on this trip. It was a total waste of time and money.

 's picture

OBAMA=NIMBY

Tron, I don't think they expected him to put the old panel up. I think they were trying to make a point that solar is a great green energy source. I think they were trying to make the point from what I have gotten from my own interaction from the people at Unity College is for the White House to invest in Solar again. Obama has talked a good game and he has tried to stop production and transportation of oil, natural gas and propane in the United States. However, given the chance to personally do something positive, like go solar at the White House we see how he really feels, NIMBY!

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