Solar power faces some financial headwinds these days, but the industry is moving forward in Maine.
A property developer announced Friday that a re-purposed mill complex in Biddeford will host a solar array that will be the biggest privately-owned facility of its type in the state.
The mills of Biddeford and Saco originally got their energy from water wheels that were placed in hand-dug sluiceways under the textile factories in the early 18th century. Now, developer Doug Sanford will install 1200 solar panels on the rooftops of the million-square foot Pepperell Mill Campus, which houses a mix of light manufacturing, commercial businesses and residential units.
"We've been chasing this for probably ten years,” he says.
Sanford says he is still crunching the numbers, but he expects to spend between a half-million and one million dollars to install more than an acre of panels and operating systems. He'll fold those costs into rents with the goal of paying off the system within ten years — and enjoying free solar electricity for decades after.
"Ultimately, on paper, the numbers work, but you always get concerned about, at the end of the day, the issues that happen and how much sun is created,” Sanford says. “So we're sort of dipping our toes in."
Phil Coupe is co-founder of Portland-based ReVision Energy.
"The thing that Mainers have to understand is that today, solar panels are cheap."
Coupe says that state incentives for solar energy have gone down under the administration of Gov. Paul LePage, and that recent tariffs imposed on cheap solar panels imported from China have boosted their price in general. But federal tax credits worth 30 percent of the investment are still available, and the new tax law accelerates depreciation write-offs that businesses can take too. That means that as much as 50 percent of the investment can be recouped through the tax code, he says.
“I think it's incredible that this mill was built 150 years ago to take advantage of hydro-kinetic energy from the Saco River, and here we are today transitioning this mill property to basically clean, renewable solar energy," says Coupe.
The mill's renovation is ongoing, with 50 new residential units under construction. The solar array is expected to start making electricity next year.