News Feature

Blue Hill
Originally published in The Weekly Packet, November 24, 2021
Harborview Apartments commits to using community solar farm
Residents to save 15% on electricity bills

The Harborview Apartments, a 40-unit senior citizen housing complex in Blue Hill, is going green. It has contracted with a community solar farm that will reduce costs and provide cleaner energy to the units.

Owner Judy Cooper has committed the apartment complex to a community solar farm run by Maine Community Solar in Portland. The arrangement should save tenants 10 to 15 percent on their energy bills, according to Darrell Cooper, Judy’s husband.

Community solar farms work in a manner similar to community gardens. Subscribers pay and are entitled to what the garden produces. In this case, it is electric energy.

Unlike community gardens, subscribers do not pay up front for their solar energy, but instead receive credits on their bill from a utility like Central Maine Power or Versant.

When customers buy subscriptions large enough to cover the costs of powering their entire homes, they pay no money to a utility.

Instead, they pay for their subscription, which is 10 to 15 percent less than what a utility charges.

By law, the utility must buy the electricity produced by solar farms, which is cheaper to produce than typical fossil fuel-based electricity, and which benefits from other incentives, like state and federal tax credits. So solar farms can be profitable while also reducing reliance on fossil fuels.

The energy from a solar farm does not go directly into a consumer’s home but is instead fed into the electric grid, which means that consumers don’t have to live close to one to benefit from it.

Tony Napolitano, an owner of Maine Community Solar, said that community solar farms have been around for 10 years elsewhere, and they are really just starting to gear up in Maine.

There really is no downside for consumers, said Napolitano. Subscribers get cheaper energy and help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and save the planet. “It is going to continue to grow in Maine,” he said.

Subscribers might be business owners, like Judy Cooper, or individual homeowners. Though they would differ in the size of the shares or subscriptions they buy, both would benefit.

Residents at the Harborview Apartments will benefit by paying less, an especially welcome development given recent increases in energy costs and the fact that many of the residents are on fixed incomes and might have a difficult time keeping up with cost increases, according to Cooper.

Community solar farms are an alternative to every homeowner buying and maintaining his own solar panels. Instead, a group of investors builds a farm and sells ownership shares or, more recently, subscriptions.

The subscription model had been scuttled under the LePage administration but is back, along with other legislation to encourage green energy alternatives. The subscription model allows more people to participate because it has no up-front costs, whereas ownership shares can cost $10,000 up front, according to Napolitano, just as owning your own solar panels is initially costly.

“You don’t get quite as big a chunk of savings” with a subscription, but there are no up-front costs either, said Napolitano.

Owner Judy Cooper said that “it has been my goal for the past seven years to make Harborview more energy efficient. Back in 1975, when I built Harborview, energy efficiency was not a priority. [But now] I have partnered with Efficiency Maine to achieve that goal.”

Efficiency Maine is the independent administrator of many energy efficiency programs in Maine. They promote cost-efficient technologies by delivering rebates to consumers on certain technologies such as LED lights and heat pumps. Efficiency Maine is overseen by the Public Utilities Commission.

Cooper said that Efficiency Maine provided incentives for Harborview to switch to LED lights and to install heat pumps in all the units.

Now, there are incentives to move to community solar farms.

Harborview Apartments operates under the Rural Development division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The rent and utilities of the residents are subsidized by the federal government.