“A bold reworking of energy systems… is now necessary and much more affordable. That could make for a very different world.”

Bill McKibben, “Power to the People” in The New Yorker (June 29, 2015)

Prices of solar panels have fallen more than 60 percent over the past four years, and are likely to continue dropping. As panel costs plummet and communities consider how to cushion themselves from energy price shocks, the question of whether to adopt solar power is fast becoming a self-evident answer. That leaves town leaders with the question raised by Belfast City Councilor Eric Saunders before that council approved a 180-panel solar installation last year: “Why in the hell didn’t we do this five years ago?”

If more Maine towns had invested in solar then, the state would be better off: emitting fewer of the greenhouse gases wreaking climate havoc; enjoying greater energy security; and bolstering the local economy (rather than adding to the $5 billion leaving Maine each year in fossil fuel payments).

Before the price of panels dropped markedly, though, the economics of solar power were challenging. Eric Hopkins of York’s Energy Efficiency Committee (yorkgoesgreen.org) recalls how in 2006 their citizens’ group – spearheaded by a 93-year-old activist – wanted to place solar panels on the York Library but found the installation cost prohibitive, with a payback period of 40 years or more.

The group focused instead on efficiency upgrades to municipal buildings and, with time, solar became a viable option.

In 2013, York successfully competed for an Efficiency Maine grant to install a 10 kilowatt-hour solar array at its middle school. Last fall, York added another grant-funded 28 kilowatt-hour solar installation to its historic fire station at York Beach (which has since undergone an energy retrofit).

With far shorter paybacks and less risk, Hopkins says, “we’re approaching a time when (solar) is not a radical suggestion anymore.”

Solar arrays are appearing on municipal buildings around Maine with greater frequency, generating both power and rave reviews.

South Berwick Public Library director Karen Eger describes their recent addition of solar power as “so wonderful.” Due to the initiative of Town Manager Perry Ellsworth the library was able to take advantage of a federal grant under 2009 stimulus funds – receiving $150,000 to install 144 panels supplying 38 kilowatt-hours. The installer, ReVision Energy, estimates the panels will meet 70 percent of the historic building’s energy needs.

Prominent municipal solar arrays get people thinking and learning about the potential contributions that renewable power can make.

A 2012 study funded by the Maine Technology Institute found that rooftop solar systems could meet 56 percent of Maine’s electrical power needs.

ReVision Energy’s Jennifer Albee says solar is “literally falling down on us every day,” and tapping into that could wean Maine from the “brown” power currently supplied through utilities (for example, 66 percent of Central Maine Power’s supply is sourced from coal, oil, gas and nuclear power).

Albee sees the growing enthusiasm for local energy as a natural extension of the evident “pride and interest in local foods within Maine.” Eger affirms that in response to the South Berwick installation, “people were so proud and felt it was so forward-thinking.” Of course, she acknowledges with a laugh, they were also pleased that the cost hadn’t come out of local taxes.

Municipalities across Maine are installing solar power without any tax implications for residents, many of them using “power purchase agreements” with the company installing solar panels. These agreements allow a town to get electricity at a slightly discounted rate during the first six years – when the panels are still owned by the company that installs them. The private company can benefit from generous federal tax credits for solar that the municipality cannot use.

Once the panels are fully depreciated, the municipality has an option to buy them at a discount (typically less than half the original cost). The total payback period for towns is 10 to 15 years, allowing them to enjoy free power during the remainder of the panels’ expected 40-year lifespan. In a few instances, towns opt to make no capital investment in solar panels and simply continue buying power from the panel owners.

With no up-front cost and a reasonable payback period, solar power now makes “good economic sense,” says Gary Friedmann, vice chair of Bar Harbor’s Town Council: “It’s a fiscally conservative course of action to take.” With the recent approval of town voters, Bar Harbor’s council is negotiating two solar projects on town property – a rooftop array to help power the public works building, and the state’s first town-owned “community solar array” – supplying power for up to nine homes and businesses.

Friedmann points to the number of local utility cooperatives in other states, some of which are municipally owned. Bar Harbor already manages its own water utility, so town ownership of electric generation is just an extension of a role it already serves. It’s not a matter of town government promoting solar so much as ensuring that local residents have access to basic services they need – such as dependable, clean and affordable power.

As more towns and residents in Maine and the nation begin generating their own solar power, the whole energy landscape is changing. Solar is becoming the fastest-growing new energy source nationally, and is taking hold in states like Massachusetts that provide strong state incentives – fostering a business climate that drives innovation, entrepreneurship and creative financing.

Maine communities – in contrast – are “doing the best they can with a lot of limitations because the state is doing so little to foster solar,” observes Dylan Voorhees of the Natural Resources Council of Maine. Transitioning to solar here, he says, “takes more work than it should.”

A future column will explore ways that Maine could accelerate the spread of solar power through creative financing measures, which will be vital to sustaining the solar industry as federal tax incentives are set to drop markedly at the end of 2016.

Marina Schauffler, Ph.D., is a writer who runs Natural Choices (naturalchoices.com).