Rick Chase stands in front of solar panels he had installed on his roof in South Paris in November. Chase says he’s paying about the same amount for the investment in the panels as he used to pay for his heat and electricity bills, which the panels now supply. He estimates that when his investment is paid off in 12 years, he’ll be paying little to nothing for his heat and electricity.  Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

SOUTH PARIS — Unlike many people, Rick Chase looks forward to getting his Central Maine Power bill.

He opens it wondering, “OK, how did we do?”

Since he had solar panels installed on the roof of his home in September, he’s doing pretty well.

His bill for March: $13.12, which is the fee he pays to be connected to the New England power grid.

That’s $13.12 a month for electricity and heat.

In September, ReVision Energy, a solar company in Maine, installed 40 panels on Chase’s home and garage. The cost was $28,000 after a federal tax credit of 26%, Chase said.

He also invested in two heat pumps to heat and cool his home, and a hybrid hot water heater, all powered by electricity he gets from his solar panels.

His $13.12 bill for electricity and heat doesn’t include the investment costs of his solar panels. For Chase, who expects to recoup his $28,000 investment in about 12 years, that comes out to about $200 a month — about what his heat and electricity bills would be without solar panels.

After 12 years, Chase expects to enjoy paying a small monthly cost or no cost for heat and electricity, except for the $13.12 monthly fee to be connected to the grid. Today’s solar panels have an expected lifetime of 30-plus years.

A software engineer manager, his family of five used to live in a home heated by propane gas. After they moved, he went solar. “It was attractive to produce our own energy, go a little green.”

Another area resident who is happy he converted to solar is organic farmer and businessman Gary Goodrich of Replenova Organic Farm in Durham, who hired Maine Solar Solutions, also of Durham, to install solar panels on his barn roof in 2019. “They did a nice job,” he said.

The 59 panels — plus extra diagnostic systems he bought to monitor exactly how much electricity he was giving to and taking from CMP — cost $50,000.

But then he received a 26% solar panel federal tax credit of $15,000, plus an agricultural grant of $8,000, bringing his cost to $27,000.

Before he made the investment he hired engineers to do a study. He wanted to be sure what he was buying would provide enough electricity.

“It’s working out fine,” Goodrich said. “The only fossil fuel I use now is diesel for my tractor.”

His monthly bill for heat and electricity is $16, the commercial fee for being on the grid. Without the panels, his electric bill would be between $300 to $350 a month. His 59 panels generate more electricity than he needs. “Last year I gave a lot back to CMP,” he said. “If you do the math, my payback is going to be eight years.”

Gary Goodrich of Replenova Organic Farm in Durham stands in front of solar panels on his barn roof. Goodrich says the solar panels have virtually eliminated his electric bill. “Last year I gave a lot back to CMP,” he said. “If you do the math, my payback is going to be eight years.” Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Goodrich said he went solar to do his part to cut climate pollution. “The environmental impact is huge.”

The investment also makes financial sense, he said. “It reduces your operating costs for a farm.” It takes a lot of energy to run his greenhouses, barn, bakery and store. His solar system powers his buildings’ heat pumps, lights, two freezers, two ovens, hot plates and various more appliances.

His advice to homeowners and small businesses is to investigate how much a low-interest energy loan for solar panels would cost, and whether the loan payment would be about the same as the existing electric bill.

“The upfront cost is big,” Goodrich said. “But there is the payback.”

SOLAR INTEREST GROWS

Solar energy production in Maine is small compared to other sources; the vast majority of buildings are heated by oil and gas. Maine is among the most dependent states on oil for heat.

But solar is growing; it’s part of Gov. Janet Mills’ goal of reducing Maine’s carbon footprint and increasing clean, renewable energy production.

Since Mills took office, state laws have changed making solar investments more attractive, with consumers getting an equal exchange for the power they generate in the summer and use in the winter.

“In the past two years we’ve seen significant interest in solar development,” said Dan Burgess, director of the Governor’s Energy Office.

He estimates about 6,000 homes and small businesses have solar panels in Maine. Of those, some 2,000 — a 50% increase — have been installed in the last two years “despite a pandemic,” Burgess said. The uptick in solar is a signal Mills’ new policies are working.

Phil Coupe, a co-founder of ReVision Energy, said increased interest is happening in part because the costs of solar technology have dropped 80% in the last decade.

At the same time, society has an increasing awareness that burning fossil fuels is unsustainable to the environment, Coupe said.

Adding to that, federal and state legislation is helping make it more affordable. On the right building and in the long-term, “solar power is now cheaper than electricity from the grid, which makes it a no-brainer financially,” Coupe said.

But even though costs have come down, the upfront price for solar panels remains high for most homeowners: between $20,000 to $25,000 to power a typical home.

If a system is sized right, and if a building has a roof with minimal or no shade, the monthly loan payment for solar panels can be swapped for what the electric bill was, Chase said.

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