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A deep dive into Maine's response, one county at a time.

A Climate to Thrive looks to make solar power affordable for MDI residents

Gabor Degre
/
Bangor Daily News
Some of the solar panels installed on buildings at the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association fairground in Unity.

A nonprofit on Mount Desert Island has created a new initiative to make solar energy affordable for all local residents.

All Things Considered Host Carol Bousquet spoke with Johannah Blackman, executive director of A Climate to Thrive, on Mount Desert Island.

Blackman says the new co-op model is not a subscription plan, nor do customers have to install their own solar panels. Instead, the solar array is purchased by a tax equity investor, and members of the cooperative pay in for 5-7 years to buy it back.

This story is part of our series "Climate Driven: A deep dive into Maine's response, one county at a time."

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Blackman: But once they've done so, the ownership flips into the hands of the co-op, allowing the homeowners to get that 50% off their monthly energy bills through ownership.

Bousquet: So, how many homeowners are paying into the co-op for a single solar array?

It depends on the size of the array. And at this point where we are within this project is we've spent time over the past year working with the People's Solar Energy Fund and with Co-op Power on developing the financial model that will best fit our local needs here. And we have a couple of potential first sites for the arrays and so it will depend on which of the sites, you know, we can get developed and interconnected first and how large that is. And then we'll, we'll be signing up co-op members for that site. But, I think that the goal is to have each co-op serve, at least, you know, 10-20 homeowners, and it just depends on the size.

So who's a good candidate for cooperative solar?

Certainly first and foremost is someone for whom that upfront cost is a barrier. Secondly, I think that there are some people whose rooftops are not correctly situated to host solar and maybe don't have the land, maybe their land is forested, and maybe they don't have large acreage, maybe they don't want to do ground mounts for a variety of different reasons, so this opens up solar energy for those folks.

So, where are you in making this happen? Do you have an array site to start using this model?

There already is a ground mount array on a capped landfill in the town of Tremont here on Mount Desert Island. And so Tremont, which is our smallest town here on the island, was the first town in what was then Emera territory to have all of its municipal energy needs powered by town-owned solar, which is really cool. And so that was an array that was built on a capped landfill, and there's additional space on that capped landfill. And so there's been a plan in place to expand that array with this cooperative ownership model. And so we are ready to go on developing that array. We are waiting for our interconnection agreement with Versant Power.

So what is the biggest challenge, as you see it, for meeting the stated goal of 100% renewable energy on Mount Desert Island by 2030?

The grid being an obstacle is a challenge that we have to overcome. And the exciting news there is that A Climate to Thrive, on behalf of MDI, was accepted this past year into what's called the Energy Transitions Initiative Partnership Project, through the Department of Energy. And so we're going to be using that technical advice from national labs to model how we could make this transition fully. And then how the grid gets in the way, and how we can overcome that obstacle, what needs to happen in terms of storage, for example, battery storage, what needs to happen in terms of smart grid technology to balance generation with what people are using at any given moment? Because we do need to do this quickly. And it's not just on MDI. It's throughout the state, throughout the country, throughout the world.