My old neighbor Gramp Wiley has been around even longer than I have, so I always sit up and listen whenever he has something to say.

Gramp Wiley is a font of wisdom. He’s an oracle so frugal with his pronouncements and so economical with his articulation that he says the first two or three words while inhaling so as not to waste any breath.

“Eyuh,” he gasped one morning, “it won’t be long before the folks who sell oil will be coming out with solar panels powered by natural gas.”

Would you not have to agree that a gas-powered solar panel could be the greatest invention since the chain saw? Long after the sun goes down, gas-powered solar panels would have more expendable energy than a Bowdoin sophomore on spring break. And, best of all, no matter how long you used them, you’d have to buy gas to keep them going.

Although the people who profit by our addiction to propane, heating oil and electricity have done everything they can to discredit solar energy, more and more Maine folks are noticing that sunshine is saving one or two of their neighbors a pile of money.

You might have noticed that your Department of Transportation was perhaps the first organization to jump on free solar energy. You can’t go anywhere now without seeing solar collectors on poles along the highway. In states where they have billboards, solar panels charge the batteries that power “Adult Toys” and “South of the Border” signs at night.


More recently, perhaps because they now cost only a third of what they did three years ago, you’ve noticed that solar panels are sprouting on libraries and municipal buildings. Do the 50 PV panels on a Camden hotel roof prove that capturing sunshine is simply good business?

It is no longer only the save-the-planet crazies who are propping up solar panels but thrifty conservative hotel and B&B owners with an eye on the bottom line.

So what are the folks who have enjoyed a monopoly on selling us energy to do? They see the handwriting on the wall and they are understandably worried. You might have heard that Oklahoma legislators have been pressured by the state’s major utilities to hit with extra charges those customers who decide to install solar panels.

You can be sure that there is similar legislation in the works in every state. There is a good reason for this because no business likes to lose customers. Our own little system of solar panels saves us perhaps $600 a year, even though we heat our domestic water with electricity and solar water heaters. You can be sure that our friends in Spain who own the power company don’t care. They can live without us. But if 100 more of your Maine neighbors decided to eliminate their power bill, someone would sit up and notice.

The power companies have noticed. You might not see it, but the folks who sell power do, and they have well-paid suits in every legislative body in the land working to tax or regulate sunlight.

You probably know a lot more about this than most, so you might tell us how our backyard electrical generator works. You have heard of power meters that run backward. But the way I understand it, the two meters on our house only run forward. One measures the excess electricity our panels generated over and above that which we use, and the other measures the amount of electricity taken from the grid.


The meter setup probably differs from state to state or from country to country and perhaps from company to company. Unless you own a power company, in the ideal system, you make exactly as much electricity as you use.

You might have read that in some countries utility companies welcome the extra power generated by individuals and pay them for it. Here, we are told that the extra power we generate and contribute to the grid is an expensive nuisance for which we must be held accountable.

The way it was explained to me, we use the electricity that we generate with our panels before it gets put on the grid. For example, on a cold sunny day, although we might be running the dishwasher, within two hours we might generate three kWh more than we used in that time period. The power company gives us a credit and we can use those three kWh when the sun goes down. For this service, we pay $9.36 a month.

Yes, we want to stay connected to the grid. Paying $112 a year for the privilege of being able to generate our own electricity, bank the excess on the grid, and then be able to use it at night or on cloudy days is much cheaper than buying the batteries that would enable us to sever our ties with the power company.

You can be sure that the power companies don’t want people to know that even here in Maine (where for years you were told that the sun never shines) little customers with only two dozen solar panels can save $600 or so every year on power bills.

You might have asked your friends who have solar panels on their homes how long it will be before their panels pay for themselves.

They could answer your question with a question: “How long does it take your 10 tanks of heating oil or natural gas to pay for themselves?”

The humble Farmer can be seen on community television in and near Portland and visited at his website:

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