When saving the town money is also about doing something good for the environment

All PostsBy the end of this month, St. George Conservation Commission member Dan Verrillo expects that the town will begin getting most all the electricity it needs from the sun—at a cost cheaper than the electricity it has been purchasing from Central Maine Power (CMP). In fact, pointing to a graph that shows, year by year, projected costs, outputs and savings, he says that over time the town could end up saving hundreds of thousands of dollars on energy expenditures.

“This is a good day for us,” Verrillo says with quiet satisfaction. “We’re doing something that is good for the environment and we’re saving the town money.”

While the Conservation Commission and other local green-energy advocates have long had a goal of moving the town in this direction, Verrillo and fellow commission colleague Joss Coggeshall began doing the legwork to make the town solar project a reality about four years ago. “Solar is key to solving the problem of reducing the carbon footprint, but we always put the economics first because saving money applies to everybody, no matter what their belief might be [about global warming],” Verrillo points out. “My role in all this was basically to bug everybody to get the task done.”

What got the ball rolling in earnest, Verrillo says, was when he discovered that there were companies in Maine who were willing, at no cost to the homeowner, to put solar panels on individual homes that had the right kind of roofs—ones that were solid, south-facing and inclined at an optimum angle.

Dan Verrillo

“Their pitch was interesting,” Verrillo explains. “They said we’ll put the panels up there for free, then we’ll charge you for the electricity the panels generate, but at or below the going rate. It seemed like a good deal for people who wanted to go green.” Verrillo explains that the scheme was economical for the energy-supplying companies because, in addition to benefitting from federal discounts for supplying green energy to homeowners, the roofs were free, the cost of solar panels was now relatively inexpensive and the panels had become much more energy efficient. Another good deal for the homeowners was that after 30 years they would take ownership of the panels and the electricity generated would also be free to them.

Verrillo’s next step was to discover if a similar arrangement might be available for a municipality like St. George. “I found out that you could make agreements with companies where they own the panels and they are just parking them on your roof and they generate the electricity and then sell it to you either at a fixed rate, or for a bit lower than CMP’s rate—there were different options. The town would be obligated to buy the electricity from the company. You make an agreement for 20 years—it is called a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA), which is standard.” After the 20 years the system—and the energy generated—would belong to the town.

The PPA seemed too good to be true to some town officials, Verrillo acknowledges, partly because many people still think about solar technology as it was in the past—costly to install and fraught with maintenance issues. It was hard to believe that in this case installation was free and, as Verrillo notes, “nowadays each panel is metered, so they are all independent—it used to be if a leaf fell on one panel they all went down.”

But once Verrillo and Coggeshall demonstrated to the Select Board’s satisfaction that solar is a reliable and cost-effective technology, especially against a likely future of increased costs for energy from non-renewable sources, they ran into a glitch. It involved the availability of something called “net metering,” which was crucial to the success of the project. This was because the town wasn’t interested in going “off the grid,” which would require the expense of battery storage. Instead, the plan required that it be possible to use CMP for delivery of the power generated.

Verrillo explains: “With CMPs permission, anybody in this state generating energy using wind or solar power can hook up to CMP with a meter and supply the whole grid, which CMP owns, with electricity. CMP will say that any you don’t use on site, any that leaves, we’ll credit it to you if you don’t use it. So you actually have a bucket you are filling with energy. So in the summer you are likely producing more than you are using and that is going out to the grid where somebody else will use it. In the winter, when you’re not generating as much because of cloud cover, and you’re using more electricity, you get to use up what you supplied in the summer. They give you a year to use it.”

The problem was that Maine’s governor wanted to get rid of net metering. So St. George’s select board decided to put the solar project on hold until it was clear how the state would proceed.

The argument against net metering, says Verrillo, was that solar energy was only for the rich, rather than a cost-efficient technology that could save all sorts of people money, including people like those getting their panels installed for free by the solar energy producers Verrillo had learned about. “CMP went along with the governor’s critique, saying we should pay for the use of its power lines. To that, we and others in favor of net metering said, ‘How much will it cost to build another power plant? In the summer we’re actually giving CMP a boost because when you need more power we’re supplying it. And then in the winter CMP doesn’t have to shut down any power plants, so we’re saving it money. And we don’t put extra wear and tear on CMPs electrical lines.’ In other words, we argued that we were actually helping the power companies and I believe they knew it.”

Still, the governor continued vetoing bills that favored net metering. And the governor gave the task of getting rid of net metering to the Public Utilities Commission, whose members are appointed by the governor. The commission ruled that all renewable energy systems that are in effect or being installed during 2017 could continue with net metering, but that the commission will phase it out over 15 years.

“So I said to the select board, if we want to save money, we’ve got to get our system installed this year,” Verrillo recounts. An ad hoc committee of the board consisting of Richard Bates, Jerry Hall and Verrillo was set up to make the installation happen if the residents of the town agreed. The proposal was placed on the ballot last June and the public voted for it by a significant margin.

The ad hoc committee then looked over the three best bids for the installation and recommended ReVision Energy, the largest of the companies competing for the PPC. Ironically, during the time it took for the Public Utilities Commission to make its ruling on net-metering, solar installation costs had come down even more so that the town was able to install a bigger system than originally planned—a 67-kilowatt system that will generate about 80,000 kilowatts a year or 90 percent of town usage. And, luckily, because time was getting short to complete the project in 2017, the Public Utilities Commission extended the deadline for installing new net-metering solar power systems to May 2018 because the commission needed extra time to figure out how to implement its phase-out ruling.

ReVision Energy began installing the solar energy system at the transfer station in early February of this year. CMP should have it hooked up to the grid by the end of this month.

Once the new system is up and running, Verrillo estimates that it will save the town more than $1,000 a year in energy costs. But the Conservation Commission and the select board’s ad hoc committee, Verrillo says, are proposing something that has the potential to increase those savings considerably.

“Now, we could save $1,000 a year for 20 years, which is when we will own the system. And then the system is likely to be good for another 20 years after that [with a savings of at least $10,000 a year]. But we are recommending that the town buy the system after 6 years. So if it costs over $150,000 to put the system in, if we buy it after 6 years at fair market value, which ReVision believes is half the installation cost, we would pay a little less than $80,000 for it. At that point we get to start saving $10,000 a year, not just $1,000. And it will run for at least another 30 years after that so we’re predicting that over time we’ll save hundreds of thousands of dollars [and by year 12 the system will be paid for].” Again, if non-renewable energy costs go up, so will the savings.

“I’m not greedy that we’re going to save particular amounts of money,” Verrillo admits. “I just want to save money and do good.”

Verrillo and the rest of the town’s Conservation Commission see the town’s new solar power system as providing an opportunity to help community members—especially its youth—see for themselves how solar works and the benefits this type of energy can bring. And he feels confident that future governors will restore net metering because of its positive economic and environmental impact.

A ceremonial “switch pulling” will be held at the transfer station at 3pm on Monday, April 9th, when everyone can get a good look at the new system. At 4pm there will be refreshments and an information session at the firefighters’ meeting room at the town office. ReVision Energy will be there to answer questions about the system and the services they offer. —JW

PHOTO: Anita Siegenthaler

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