Bulk purchases of panel systems within a community could lower the cost by 10%.

A national movement aimed at cutting the high cost of solar-electric panels through community bulk purchasing is coming to Maine, kicking off next weekend in Freeport.

Solarize Freeport hopes to sign up enough residents between now and May 2 to knock 10 percent off the price of an average home system, or roughly $1,500. An informational meeting for home and business owners is set for 9 a.m. March 7 at Freeport Town Hall. Organizers say 70 residents already have signed up to have their properties evaluated and to get price quotes.

More information is available at www.solarizefreeport.com.

Solarize got its start six years ago in a neighborhood of Portland, Oregon, and has since spread to dozens of communities and several states. But it remains to be seen how well it catches on in Maine.

Despite its cold climate, Maine has enough sunshine to make solar electricity a viable energy source. The obstacle for many people is the high cost of installing the panels and utility meter connections. Although panel prices have fallen in recent years, a typical home installation can cost from $15,000 to $18,000.

Unlike places where Solarize has taken root, Maine has no government incentives or rebates to help lower the price of solar panels. Gov. Paul LePage is openly hostile to the idea of subsidizing renewable energy. Last year, he vetoed a bill that would have reinstated a $1 million solar rebate program for homeowners and small businesses. The rebate came from a tiny surcharge on power bills and was very popular, until the money ran out.

For now, Maine residents looking for solar incentives rely on a 30 percent federal tax credit, which is due to drop to 10 percent at the end of 2016. It’s too early to say whether Congress will extend the 30 percent credit, which is a cornerstone supporting the rapid growth of solar energy in the United States. Solarize Freeport organizers say the uncertainly makes now a good time to go solar.

“The looming tax credit expiration is kind of a kick for doing this program,” said Vaughan Woodruff, owner of Insource Renewables in Pittsfield.

Insource Renewables is partnering with Assured Solar Energy of North Yarmouth to launch Solarize Freeport. The two companies won a bid sent out by the town to provide and install equipment. As part of the bidding process, the companies had to provide aggregated discounts based on how many homeowners sign up for certain levels of electric output. The higher the total kilowatt output, the higher the discount. But on average, the discount is expected to be in the 10 percent range.

For instance: A typical home in Maine that consumes 6,000 kilowatt hours a year might be fitted with a 5-kilowatt solar-electric system. That system could offset 85 percent of the home’s power bill over the course of the year.

According to Woodruff, the gross cost of the 5-kilowatt system is about $18,500. Subtracting the 30 percent federal tax credit drops the total to $13,000. The 10 percent Solarize discount pulls the bottom line to $11,150. At current electric rates, it would take roughly 12 years to pay back the investment, but less time if rates rise.

By comparison, Solarize Portland, the Oregon program, was able to offer a combination of state, federal and utility rebates and incentives that slashed the final cost to less than $3,000.

Mainers have no chance of seeing those kinds of incentives, but Donna Larson, Freeport’s town planner, said the 10 percent bulk purchasing discount will help make up for the previous state rebate.

Larson learned about the Solarize concept last year and got permission from the town council to pursue it for Freeport. She used bid documents from a Solarize program in New Hampshire and Vermont to create a request for proposals, which received eight replies.

Larson noted that encouraging residents to use renewable energy is part of the town’s comprehensive plan.

“The more people see panels go up on roofs, the more it’s demystified,” she said.

It’s not clear how many Freeport residents will follow through with the program. They’ll have to secure financing and own buildings or land with the proper orientation to the sun. Woodruff said he’s hoping for 35 systems to go up in Freeport.

ReVision Energy of Portland, Maine’s largest solar installer, already is working with the Solarize Kearsage program in New Hampshire. Phil Coupe, the company’s co-founder, said he is looking forward to more Solarize opportunities in Maine.

“With regard to Solarize Freeport,” he said, “we hope the initiative will attract more people to the strong economic and environmental benefits of harvesting Maine’s abundant local solar resource, compared to the high cost and harmful pollution associated with using fossil fuels from away.”


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