March 10, 2010

Excitement heats up over solar subdivision

TUX TURKEL

— By

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Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer: The wood siding around the door was salvaged from an old airport hangar in Sanford and the siding of the house is a type of cement board that is rot and insect resistant and warrantied for 50 years. Jason Peacock and his daughter Avery show the model house Jason is building in Wiscasset on land where he hopes to create a subdivision of off-the-grid solar powered homes. Photographed on Wednesday, July 28, 2009.

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Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer: Jason Peacock holds his daughter Avery outside the model home that Jason is building in Wiscasset on land where he hopes to create a subdivision of off-the-grid solar powered homes. Photographed on Wednesday, July 28, 2009.

Staff Writer

WISCASSET — Jason Peacock's goal -- his dream, really -- is to live in a rural neighborhood where his young daughter not only can catch frogs in the creek and see stars at night, but where she also can plug in a laptop and flat-screen TV. The difference is, no power lines would connect the neighborhood; electricity would be generated by sunlight.

''I want a mini back-to-the-land feeling,'' he said. ''I want to bridge the gap between the hippie generation of the 1960s and modern technology.''

Peacock is trying to create that dream on 34 forested acres north of town here. He calls the project ''Solar Village.'' Peacock envisions a dozen or so tightly built homes, with high-efficiency lights and appliances that can run most of the time on electricity harvested from solar panels.

Off-the-grid subdivisions are uncommon in the country. None currently exists in Maine.

Despite growing interest in green building, most off-the-grid homes are stand-alone dwellings in remote areas, beyond the reach of power lines.

To have enough power on cloudy, cold days, battery banks, controllers and generators must augment solar panels. That adds layers of cost and complication that deter most developers and all but the most dedicated homeowners.

But Peacock is betting that a market exists for people like himself, who feel passionate enough about healthy living and the renewable-energy lifestyle to make the needed changes, and investment, to live in an off-the-grid community.

''I think people are willing to make that change, and I'm staking my career on it,'' he said.

Whether or not Peacock is successful, the features he's building into the first home at Solar Village are instructive, at a time when many Mainers are worried about home energy bills.

A former massage therapist who lives in Portland, Peacock became interested in the relationship between homes and health after a serious illness.

A builder for the past six years, he is accredited at the highest levels of healthy, energy-efficient construction, as set out by the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program. The company he and his wife operate, Platinum Green Inc., is a reference to that ideal.

Peacock chose Wiscasset, home of the former Maine Yankee nuclear power plant, for his experiment. Maine Yankee is gone, but its surviving hook-up to the region's transmission grid is attracting new renewable-energy proposals.

One company is looking at an underground pumped storage hydro facility. Another is considering a submarine cable to Boston. Wiscasset and Chewonki Foundation, the town's alternative-energy think tank, are working on a tidal power plan.

All this activity is giving this midcoast town, better known for its picturesque village and summer traffic jams, a green power vibe that could make Solar Village a natural fit.

Earlier this week, Peacock offered a look at progress at his model home. Sitting inside, with his 5-year-old daughter on his lap, he talked about the details of the modern, shed-style building he has designed to breathe, sip energy and be easy to maintain.

The home is roughly 1,000 square feet, purposely small. Large south-facing windows welcome passive solar gain in winter. An insulated concrete floor, underlaid with tubing for wood-fired radiant heat, also soaks up sunlight. Sprayed foam insulation in the walls and ceiling create a tight envelope, while letting water vapor escape. A metal roof and siding made of fiber-cement and recycled lumber promise low maintenance.

The home's thermal efficiency is apparent in the sudden summer heat. It is cool inside, despite the hot afternoon.

Peacock is just beginning to finish the interior. He will use materials that minimize the release of volatile chemicals and a whole-house heat exchanger for ventilation.

''I want to build a nontoxic house,'' he said.

On the roof, vacuum tube-type solar panels will heat water and maybe help warm the concrete slab. An array of solar-electric panels will generate electricity. By using LED lights, a direct-current refrigerator and other high-efficiency appliances, Peacock plans to trim power demand to the point where a 2-kilowatt photovoltaic system and battery bank can supply most of the load.

Peacock knows, however, that the sun can't do the whole job. The house will need a backup generator for cloudy, winter days, when it's not cold enough to be clear.

''We call it 'the 20-degree day,''' he said. ''That's the toughest day of the year.''

A small wind turbine might help on those days, feeding current to the batteries.

Cloudy winter days are why it's so hard to develop an off-the-grid subdivision in Maine, saidPat Coon, co-owner of ReVision Energy, a large solar installer in Portland.

The sun can easily charge a battery bank during the summer, he said, but it takes lots of batteries to store enough power during a cloudy winter stretch. That can add several thousand dollars to the cost of solar electricity, compared to panels that are tied in to the electric grid.

''We get this question every day,'' Coon said. ''People want to be off the grid, or that's what they think they want. Then they start diving into the details.''

A 3-kilowatt system, big enough to energize a house that uses a frugal 300 kilowatt hours a month, could run as high as $32,000 after tax credits for the panels, battery bank, inverter and generator, Coon said. And buyers must have realistic expectations about what they can run in their homes during a cloudy week in December.

''It's an exciting project,'' said Coon, who lived in an off-grid house in Maine for a decade. ''Jason's going to learn a lot along the way about what it takes to be off the grid.''

It seems unlikely, though, that Peacock will be gaining that experience this winter.

He's largely financing and building the project himself and needs $50,000 to complete the model. He expects it to have a resale value of $180,000 or so.

Peacock had hoped to finish the house by now, but he couldn't line up construction loans. The handful of buyers he has attracted put off building plans when the economy crashed.

One of them is Shayne Malone, a green home developer in Michigan. He wants Peacock to build him a two-bedroom vacation home in Solar Village but has to wait until 2010. He likes the feel in Wiscasset and wants a home without power lines.

Peacock would like to move his family to Solar Village, but first things first. He needs to get a couple of firm contracts, then present subdivision plans to the town.

Wiscasset is friendly to alternative-energy development, according to Jeffery Hinderliter, the town planner. It recently enacted a small-scale wind energy ordinance that other towns are adopting. He thinks the Planning Board would look favorably on Solar Village and encouraged Peacock to keep him posted.

''It's a great idea,'' Hinderliter said. ''You're off the grid, but you don't have to drive an hour to get to a grocery store.''

Staff Writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at:

tturkel@pressherald.com

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