Solar energy appears poised to enter a new era in Maine.

Last year’s election ended the anti-solar policies of former Gov. Paul LePage and Republican leadership in the Legislature. The clean-energy and climate change goals of Gov. Janet Mills and Democratic lawmakers triggered a total reboot of Maine’s solar policies, in part by greatly expanding the potential of larger, ground-mounted projects designed to offset the electricity needs of hundreds of homes. One approach is the community solar farm.

Now thousands of Mainers who don’t want, can’t have or couldn’t afford solar panels on their own property will be able to satisfy some of their electric use with solar energy.

But community solar is a broad term that means different things and has different business models. And new customer options, which will start to be introduced next year in Maine, are still evolving. In some arrangements, customers could save money on their electric bills right away. In others, it’s a longer-term investment.

What is community solar?

It’s a way for homes and businesses to purchase electricity generated by renewable energy through a shared project. Companies or their partners erect large solar arrays on unobstructed sites, where they achieve maximum output throughout the year. All the power goes from the solar farm straight into the utility grid, not to a specific house or business.

So how does a customer get solar electricity?

There are different business models. Some community solar farms are member owned, with each customer buying a share of the project. All the output is tracked, and each customer’s share is credited monthly on their electric bill.

In some investor-owned models, customers who sign up are guaranteed to save a certain percentage on their electric bill, typically 10 percent or so. The savings are modest, but there’s no cost to the customer and the arrangement can be canceled at any time.

Are there other considerations?

Embracing community solar requires a change in consumer expectations. It’s not for customers who want to see panels on their property and perhaps someday add battery storage with a goal of going “off the grid.” It’s for renters, condo dwellers, homeowners with roofs that are shady or don’t face south, or anyone who doesn’t want to think about the equipment.

Can community solar help blunt climate change and advance the aspirational goals of the Mills administration to make Maine carbon neutral by 2045?

Solar will be a big part of any renewable energy mix that backs Maine out of fossil fuels. Rooftop will have a role, but large-scale solar farms are critical. So while different business models may appeal to different customers, what matters in the big picture is the overall ability of solar to grow and displace greenhouse-gas contributing power plants.

Some development proposals in Maine also plan at some point to incorporate battery storage, which is starting to happen in other states. That evolving technology could, for instance, keep solar online well into a hot summer evening, during hours of peak air-conditioning demand now typically met by gas-fired generators in New England.
Even before these market changes come to Maine, solar is starting to have a real impact in the region. Grid manager ISO-New England reported last week that small-scale solar systems lowered peak demand on the grid during a blistering hot July 30 by 1,000 megawatts. That’s the rough equivalent of two major gas-fired power plants.

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