The solar array at Crystal Spring Farm in Brunswick is cooperatively owned by the Crystal Spring Farm Community Solar Association. Gregory Rec / Portland Press Herald file photo

My family joined a community solar project in May 2021 that offered us a 10% discount on our electricity prices and all green, solar electricity. I recommend joining one of the hundreds of community solar projects being built in Maine after the Legislature passed the net energy billing law in 2019. A residential or business customer can join a community solar project up to 5 kilowatts in size that collectively reduces their energy charges by their portion of the electricity produced. To facilitate the transition from fossil fuel to renewable electricity, small solar projects in Maine, now the cheapest source of electricity, are paid at the higher electric standard offer rate. This also creates fairness for homeowners who invested in solar panels to receive the full value of their solar power. Benefits from buying electricity produced by wind, solar or hydro power include reduced greenhouse gases, reduced oil spills and gas line breaks, and improved air and water quality.

How do you choose a solar provider who builds their own projects and will responsibly supply your home with electricity at 85%-90% of the standard offer most homeowners now pay? Consider where the company is based and whether it actually builds community solar projects, called a project manager, or just markets them. I recommend searching for the Maine Office of the Public Advocate website and choose Community Solar, which outlines the process of applying. This state agency is committed to providing affordable, high-quality utility services to Maine utility customers. They have a list of frequently asked questions about community solar and another list of essential questions to ask a project manager to verify their quality of service. Particularly, you want to ask, “Where is the project located?” and “When will it be completed and start offering solar credits?”

Another question to ask is “Does the solar project have a contract period?” Our solar project, SunRaise, needs two months’ notice for us to stop the program, but customers can transfer their share to another residence if they are moving within Maine. Renters can also obtain shares in solar community projects. Power Market, which provides billing service for SunEaise, now enrolls homes in the Midcoast area at a 15% discount on electric bills through Novel Company, started by a former Minnesota farmer. Power Market doesn’t build community solar projects but provides billing services and marketing for them.

My family joined SunRaise community solar project in Belfast in May 2021 and started receiving solar production credits in August 2021. If you join a project that is just getting started, it will probably take longer to complete its membership, get permission from CMP to connect and then start operating. The solar company will need to see your last year’s bills from CMP to calculate the size of your portion of the community solar farm. You have to build up solar credits equal to your monthly electric use before you get the full cost reduction.

Late winter through early spring is a good time of year to enroll, since you get the most credit built up in your share from May through September when the sun is higher in the sky for longer periods of time. These credits, which you pay for when they are generated, will carry you through the lean winter times when solar generation is lower. If you anticipate adding heat pumps, electric cars or other high-electricity devices to your home within the next year, it’s to your benefit to let your chosen company calculate this extra electric use into your solar allocation. Regardless of when you sign up, you will receive the full discount on your electric bills after one year of subscription to community solar. The company assigns you a share amount based on your previous electricity use, so as long as you maintain or reduce your electric use, you will have enough credits to pay the lower electric rate.

Since CMP still delivers my electricity, I get a small monthly bill from CMP of less than $14. CMP bills now include easy-to-read graphs that compare your monthly electric usage to the solar electricity produced by your share of the solar project. Then 30-60 days later, you will get a bill from the solar provider, which reduces your main electric bill by the percentage reduction you have chosen.

Another resource to better understand the net energy billing from community solar projects is the Maine Public Utilities Commission. Since the PUC regulates the distribution and purchase of electricity and other utilities, all solar companies using the net metering program are registered on the PUC website. You can use a screen to select companies based in Maine. Look for a company that is the project developer, not a marketer or representative/agent. The physical address of each company and its contact phone and website are listed on the PUC website. You can also ask questions to the consumer advisor, Elizabeth Deprey, 287-4300, at the Maine Office of the Public Advocate.

Nancy Chandler studied Animal Behavior and Anthropology at Stanford University, then received her master’s in biology education in her home state of North Carolina at U.N.C. Chapel Hill. She is passionate about teaching energy conservation and hopes to get you thinking about how to use energy use efficiently to save both money and reduce greenhouse warming gases.

Comments are not available on this story.