Solar Empowers Transition to Oil-Free Home
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When Robert and Kathleen Flory bought a lovely home with property along the Damariscotta River in Maine in 1994, they were thrilled to finally move to the place that was very special to them. They both had dreamt of calling Maine home for a long time – Robert since the 1960s when he worked as a summer camp counselor.
Their new home was a catch, but there was, in fact, another catch. “We saw that the electricity bills were going to be $800-900 dollars in the winter! The original owners based the heating system on geothermal heat, which isn’t ideal during winter in Maine,” Robert recalled.
So, 24 years ago, just before they moved in, they converted the heating system to fuel oil. “We were told that was the best solution,” Robert said. “Between then and now we’ve learned an awful lot about the consequences of burning fuel oil.”
Over the years they started thinking about alternatives for their home electricity and heating, first considering installing a wind turbine in their meadow. After some research, though, Robert and Kathleen weren’t sufficiently impressed by residential-scale wind power. “We love the thought of the technology, but what’s involved in terms of practical solutions didn’t really represent a suitable alternative for our home.”
As their family grew to include grandchildren, they planned to expand their home to accommodate extended visits. They were more motivated than ever to reduce their carbon footprint, and so Robert and Kathleen began considering solar power, which had become significantly more affordable.
ReVision brainstormed with the Florys to find a way to install their desired amount of solar power as unobtrusively as possible. The roofline and shading of their home isn’t ideal for traditional rooftop solar, so we initially proposed a solar tracker as a way to conserve space, and harvest plenty of sunshine. As impressed as they were with the way solar trackers follow the sun’s path to maximize yield, it just wasn’t what they wanted for the meadow by their home.
Solar Works Far Afield
For those where on-site solar isn’t viable, there is an alternative — Community Solar Farms, a model where several members get together to purchase and benefit from a solar farm generation asset that is located off-site from their property (in a sunny field somewhere in their utility’s territory). All power from the solar farm is fed into the grid, and the power is distributed across the member accounts based on the % ownership stake through a model called ‘virtual net metering.’
The Florys were beyond excited about this opportunity. They ran with the idea, suggesting that ReVision determine how much solar electricity would bring them to net zero energy usage. “We tend not to think small!” Robert asserted.
Strength in Community
Their determination led the Florys to investing in the largest percentage ownership of what’s currently Maine’s largest Community Solar Farm, located on 3 Level Farm in South China. The solar farm consists of 660 solar panels, and has been a huge success, offering benefits for the landowner, the solar owners, and the environment.
While the Florys are a success story, outmoded policy has slowed the adoption of solar farms in Maine. Currently solar farms are limited to an arbitrary cap of 9 members, meaning the benefits of scale are not as achievable as they could be.
Despite dogged efforts by solar advocates, Maine’s Legislature continues to keep this cap in place. As such, the demand for solar farms continues to outstrip the ability to build them, as the model works best when able to leverage efficiencies of scale.
Heating on Sunshine
One advantage of solar electricity for the Florys was converting their heating system away from fuel oil back to the original hydronic system, this time supplied by an electric boiler. Solar-powered electric heating translates to a much lower heating expense, that is locked-in for several decades.
This was the first winter the Florys used electrical power for heating. “It was a tough winter,” Robert evaluated. “But our solar credits covered all of our household electrical needs.” Robert and Kathleen look forward to year-round solar electricity, and hope that the turning point for New England’s community power production is just ahead.