Wednesday, March 12, 2014
Denis Thoet owns and manages Long Meadow Farm in W
By my count, Maine has more sunny and partly sunny days per year than any other New England state.
In the four years since 2008, Maine (at least here at Long Meadow Farm) has averaged 205 sunny days, with a high of 241 in 2011 and a low of 184 in 2009.
By contrast, Nashua, N.H., averages 201; Burlington, Vt., 159, and Springfield, Mass., 134.
There's one good reason for this. Our prevailing northwest wind brings cool (sometimes frigid) but clear air from our neighbor to the north, Canada, without picking up moisture from the ocean or the Great Lakes. Our westerly and southwesterly winds also are moisture-free, although they may be laden with soot and particulates from the south and Midwest. The wet weather comes primarily from the northeast and southeast, and that's much less frequent.
What this means is, Maine is a solar electric powerhouse! Maine is not only the Saudi Arabia of water, we are "Florida North" when it comes to sunshine. In fact, Daytona Beach, Fla., averages only 229 days of sunshine.
Who needs a referendum about clean energy when our cleanest energy comes from the sun, and we don't need big turbines on hillsides to capture it? Nor is it a "job killer." It is a "job creator."
People are catching on, particularly small farmers in Maine, because both solar electric and solar thermal have useful applications on our farms.
One of the most visible of those applications was installed at the headquarters of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners in Unity last year. With more than $50,000 in grants and donations, MOFGA installed 52 230-watt photovoltaic panels on a 200-year old barn at its Unity farm and fair grounds.
The installer was a Maine-based company, ReVision, out of Liberty and Portland. ReVision employs 42 workers and buys solar panels "by the container-load," according to John Luft, an officer with the company.
Other solar electric designers and installers in Maine include Sun Dog in Searsport, Eos Solar in Rockland and Rick Roughgarden in Palermo.
The MOFGA solar project produces 13,600 kilowatt hours per year, and reduces the overall power bill by 30 percent, according to Vernon LeCount, facilities coordinator.
At Two Loon Farm in South China, a 90-tube solar thermal system preheats large amounts of water used in the operation to 135 degrees, with electric heat bringing the temperature to a necessary 160 degrees, according to farm owner Spencer Aitel.
"It has been a large benefit," Aitel said. His system was installed by Steve Simpson of Eos Solar. Aitel and his partner, Paige Tyson, run a 400-acre dairy farm with nearly 100 milking Jersey cows.
The solar thermal system cost $10,000, Aitel said, partially offset by a $1,000 Efficiency Maine grant and a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant for $2,500. The federal grant, called REAP (Rural Energy for America Program) is a competitive grant program that provides grants to commercial operations to help them invest in renewable energy systems.
On a much smaller farm such as Long Meadow, with three acres of garden and 28 acres of woodland and pasture, a solar electric system could replace 50 percent to 100 percent of our power needs. We use between 300 and 900 kilowatt hours a month, with the heaviest usage from March to June, when we run grow lights for seedlings 12 hours a day. Last year, we used more than 7,500 kilowatts of electric power for our lights, refrigeration, and cooking stoves.
Luft, of ReVision, said it would cost about $14,400 to install a 5,000-kilowatt solar electric system on the south-facing roof of the farm house. With grant assistance, the cost comes down to about $10,000.
In this system, an inverter turns the power into alternating current for direct consumption. Excess power is fed back into the grid as a credit against the months when power is taken from the grid.
Off-the-grid solar electric systems get very expensive because of their need for banks of batteries and their vulnerability to wide swings in weather patterns.
Since we spend about $1,200 a year on electricity, you might say the "payback" is about eight and a half years. I would say the payback is immediate, since my power bill would start going down by 50 percent to 75 percent as soon as the system is up and running.
Wouldn't it be great to imagine a Maine where homes and farms across the state would be pumping power back into the grid rather than complaining about the high cost of energy?
Who needs natural gas and wind power? We've already got our clean, quiet power source. Have a sunny day!
Denis Thoet owns and manages Long Meadow Farm in West Gardiner. www.longmeadowfarmmaine.com.