October 4, 2013

Habitat for Humanity’s first solar house completed in Maine

Built with kindness, this pioneering home in Oakland is the latest indication that solar energy is becoming feasible for more people.

By MATT HONGOLTZ-HETLING Morning Sentinel

OAKLAND — After years of planning and 15 months of construction, New England’s first solar-powered Habitat for Humanity house will be opened to the public Sunday.

click image to enlarge

Mike Grant mows the lawn in front of the solar-powered Habitat for Humanity home recently completed on Jacques Lane in Oakland on Thursday. There will be an open house event this Sunday from 1-3 p.m.

David Leaming / Staff Photographer

The beige ranch house, the fourth built in the Oakland area by Habitat since 2002, was constructed with a mixture of goodwill and hard labor from donors and volunteers.

Mike Grant, a member of the Waterville area Habitat for Humanity chapter’s board of directors, said Sunday’s open house, scheduled for 1 to 3 p.m., is being held to thank the nearly 100 volunteers and 50 companies that came together to provide the resources needed for the building.

“We look at it as a community development project because we’ve brought together all these people and organizations, and together we’ve provided a focal point for them to help this family,” Grant said.

The home looks like any other new house except for a double row of 16 photovoltaic panels mounted on the roof, which face south to gather the most light.

Grant said the volunteer workforce was able to use the panels over the past few months to power their saws and other tools on the worksite.

“We were glad to get out of the gas-powered generator business,” Grant said. “It was noisy and smelly.”

The panels, and a solar hot water system, will provide about 50 percent of the energy needed to heat water and 90 percent of the home’s electricity needs.

That will help save money for the new homeowner, Joni Sprague, a 31-year-old preschool teacher and single mother who now shares a small Waterville apartment with her twin 3-year-old daughters and her mother. Grant said she will be able to move in by the end of the month.

Sprague, who has worked alongside the volunteers to put in required “sweat equity,” also will make mortgage payments. The sun-powered energy makes sense for Sprague, who will pay about $60 more on her mortgage but will save about $100 in utility bills, for a net monthly gain of about $40.

The home is an example of how solar power is becoming more cost-effective for residential consumers.

The cost of photovoltaic panels has dropped dramatically in the past few years, allowing the equipment to pay for itself in savings in about 10 years, said Susan Elichaa, owner of Solaris, a Portland-based firm that sells and installs photovoltaic systems.

For $11,000, minus a current 30 percent tax credit, Solaris will install a 12-panel system that produces about $60 worth of electricity each month, or 3.2 kilowatts per year.

Many states have incentive programs that reduce the sticker price of photovoltaic systems further, Elichaa said, but Maine does not.

She said improvements in technology continue to increase the amount of electricity that can be generated from each panel, further reducing costs.

Grant said Habitat for Humanity was able to achieve a much quicker predicted payback period, of about five years, because it was able to use volunteer labor to design and install the system.

The house originally was scheduled to be completed earlier in the year, but Grant said technical problems with suppliers pushed the closing back.

Officers from the Waterville area chapter of Habitat for Humanity are hosting the open house Sunday at the 12 Jacques Lane property, where a ribbon-cutting is scheduled for 1:30 p.m.

Grant said the group doesn’t plan to build any homes next year. Instead, volunteers will be finding and fixing energy leaks in homes as part of a new weatherization program.

Under that program, Habitat volunteers install a clear, double-layer plastic insert that is custom-cut to fit the windows of qualified applicants from Albion, Belgrade, Benton, China, Clinton, Fairfield, Oakland, Rome, Smithfield, Unity, Vassalboro, Waterville and Winslow.

 

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be contacted at 861-9287 or at:

mhhetling@centralmaine.com

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