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