Talk about a light-bulb moment. Last week, while Gov. Paul LePage (bless him) allowed the Maine Solar Energy Act to become law without his signature, I discovered just how patriotic a little sunlight can be.
To wit: my new, solar-powered flag lighting system.
For more than a decade, as I’ve proudly flown the stars and stripes from a telescopic pole in my yard in Buxton, I’ve simultaneously wallowed in quiet guilt.
The star-spangled banner, as any informed flag waver knows, should either be lowered at sunset or, as the U.S. Flag Code stipulates, “properly illuminated during the hours of darkness.”
I did neither. Too lazy to raise it and lower it each day and too busy to dig a trench and run 100-plus feet of underground wire out to the base of the pole, I simply wrapped myself in denial from sundown to sunrise – trying not to fixate on the fact that my good friend and next-door neighbor Smokey lights up his flag each night like one of the launch pads at Cape Canaveral.
Then last week, upon deciding my old flag was in dire need of replacement, I stopped by the Gorham Flag Center for a new one. While Derek Auclair, whose family owns the business, rang up the sale, I discreetly asked what he knew about easy-to-install flag-lighting systems.
I admitted nothing. But Auclair, it turns out, knows all about shadowy flag wavers like me.
“They feel, for lack of a better word, ashamed,” he said.
Auclair’s gentle suggestion: a “Solar Light for Flagpoles” made by the flag manufacturer Annin. Or in my case, a $79 ticket to pure, round-the-clock patriotism.
It took less than five minutes to unscrew the gold ball atop the pole, slide on the 8-inch-diameter disc with five mini-solar panels on one side and 20 LED lights on the other, and sit back and wait for the sun to go down.
“It works!” I hollered to my wife a few hours later. “Come look! Flag Code-compliant at last!”
“Hmmm … interesting,” said my wife as we stared out from the porch at the red, white and blue bathed in an otherworldy glow.
Interesting? Standing there basking in my oh-so-simple achievement, it dawned on me that this was the first time in my life I’d actually tapped into the 8.2 million “quads” (quadrillion BTUs) of energy bestowed on Mother Earth each year by the sun.
One quad, for those keeping score, equals 283 billion kilowatt hours of electricity. And alas, out of those 8.2 million quads available to anyone with a photovoltaic cell, we earthlings now help ourselves to a paltry 400.
Meaning every step, however small, counts.
“We’ve finally gone solar,” I marveled as the missus snapped a photo for her Facebook page. “No underground wire, no trenches, no 100-watt spotlight bulbs, no 12-hour-a-day add-on to our electricity bill. Nothing but 100 percent free sunlight!”
Which brings us back to the Maine Solar Energy Act.
State Sen. Eloise Vitelli, D-Arrowsic, introduced the measure in December after reviewing other energy legislation and noticing that wind power, for one, was getting far more attention than solar.
“It looked to me as if solar could use a boost,” Vitelli said in an interview on Tuesday. “It hadn’t gotten its full consideration.”
The result wasn’t exactly earth-shaking legislation. In addition to assigning the Public Utilities Commission to report back to lawmakers by January on “the value of distributed solar energy generation” in Maine, Vitelli’s bill sets minimum solar-generation goals of 40 megawatts by 2016, 200 megawatts by 2020 and 500 megawatts by 2030.
(According to ISO New England, Maine now generates only 8 megawatts of grid-connected solar energy – compared with a whopping 340 in Massachusetts. By contrast, the oil-fired Wyman Station power plant in Yarmouth can churn out 822 megawatts at capacity – enough to power 893,000 homes or God knows how many flagpoles.)
Last week, to be sure, was far from sunny for all things solar: The Maine Senate upheld LePage’s veto of a bill to restore a rebate program for Mainers who install solar panels on their homes. The Guv’s objection: the bill was “bad energy policy” because it would have added a whopping 60 cents per year to the average residential electricity bill.
But Vitelli’s measure, passed overwhelmingly by both the House and Senate, managed to become law without the governor’s signature – no easy feat, considering his record 163 (and counting) vetoes since he took office.
Vitelli’s take: From one farmer in her district who uses a small array of solar panels to charge his electrified fence, to another who plans to power his entire farm on nothing but daylight, we’re crazy not to explore ways to tap into an energy source that is totally clean, totally renewable and totally free.
“It’s become personal,” Vitelli said. “There are many small and large uses in which solar can be employed.”
You’re preaching to the choir on that one, senator. My wife’s Facebook post introducing “Bill’s new solar-powered LED flagpole light!” has generated a little buzz of its own, including a suggestion from a colleague here at the newspaper that “at Halloween you could hang a scarecrow up there and scare the crap out of everybody.”
All in due time.
For now, I’ll just keep pausing by the window at night, content that in my neck of the woods, nothing could be more patriotic than a brand new flag suspended in the soft glow of cutting-edge solar technology. Or, as Vitelli put it, “Love of country comes with the sun!”
All for a fraction of a quad.
Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: