The Working Waterfront

Home-grown electrons are the best electrons

Rooftop solar power has the potential to change our world

Tom Groening
Posted 2019-10-29
Last Modified 2019-10-29

By Tom Groening

When I was eight years old, I invented a perpetual motion machine. As I recall, I was in the back of my family’s station wagon on a trip, doodling in a little notebook, and my plans included rubber bands, springs, and a reconfigured wire coat hanger. When my drawing was complete, I promptly laid down and took a nap.

The world is probably a better place for my leaving the world of science shortly after that moment of brilliance. But I must have had some promise in the field, as my second-grade teacher gave me and my buddy Steve Gallo—and only us—globs of mercury to push around the classroom floor one day.

Still, I’ve been fascinated by the world of alternative energy for most of my adult life. When the dream of living in a (sort of) self-sufficient way in Maine first took hold, I eagerly immersed myself in magazines like Mother Earth News and Country Journal, reading about building, insulating, and lighting and heating in a manner consistent with a rural, conservationist ethic.

That passion remains.

Our primary heat at home comes from a woodstove, though I hope to add a couple of heat pumps in the coming years. Our log home features a roof that has contiguous sheets of 4-inch-thick polyisocyanurate (foam) insulation. And though the logs may conduct heat outwards, once they are warm, they act as an effective thermal mass, holding heat remarkably well.

The house is about 2,000-square feet, yet we are able to heat it with three cords of firewood I buy (cut and split), plus another cord or so I cut around the property. We also have a rickety old propane Monitor space heater and a few small electric heaters.

With retirement looming—well, close to a decade away—I am thinking about stabilizing energy costs. The companies that sell and install photovoltaics make the argument that installing rooftop solar is like locking-in heating oil at $2 a gallon. It’s a persuasive argument.

With the return of net metering (thank you, Gov. Janet Mills), a homeowner producing electricity over the course of year—maybe a little more or less than he or she uses—is guaranteed to be credited by the utility. Some friends who live nearby, and who have a small office building in addition to their small home, have seen zero electric utility costs with what they produce on their rooftops.

I think it’s only fair that homeowners relying on PVs pay a small fee for the maintenance of the grid, but those utilities are seeing substantial benefits as electricity is produced locally, so it’s a win-win.

With PVs on the roof, homeowners can think about relying more heavily on heat pumps (which use only electricity to capture heat from outside air, even at temperatures approaching zero). And they can think about purchasing plug-in electric vehicles. I remember when gasoline hit $4.50 a gallon briefly in 2008, when my round-trip commute was 76 miles in a pickup truck. Ouch.

The next big thing, maybe five to ten years away, is batteries that allow storage at home, and a grid that can shift, as needed, my fully-charged storage to my neighbor.

Acceptance of a fee to stay grid-connected aside, I’ve got an unsavory history with utility companies. While still living on Long Island, I attended protests against a nuclear plant there. And here in Maine, I supported efforts in the late 1980s to shutter the Maine Yankee nuclear plant. Central Maine Power spent close to $1 million to convince people to vote to keep it open, which suggests a big profit was involved.

Earlier this year, Rep. Seth Berry proposed the state buy both CMP and Emera Maine and set up a consumer-owned utility. It’s not an unprecedented move; in fact, there is a small, consumer-owned electric utility in eastern Washington County.

Producing electricity from the sun, wind, and tides is now a viable way to step away from carbon pollution, and that’s enough to recommend it. But maybe I’m just cheap. And that’s not a joke. Close to $1 billion leaves Maine each year to pay for fossil fuels. Cutting the cost of heat, light, and transportation would be a game-changer.

Tom Groening is editor of The Working Waterfront.