BINGHAM — When the sun beats down on the roof of the equipment barn at North Country Rivers this summer, it will be doing more than drying off the kayaks and whitewater rafting equipment scattered around the outside of the building.
With the help of more than 140 solar panels installed last week, the energy from the sun will be captured and converted into electricity that will fuel about 50 percent of the resort’s energy needs.
The $105,000 project, which was partly funded with a federal grant, is part of an overall $250,000 energy revamp at the resort that started in 2011 with a desire to be more environmentally friendly and reduce energy costs, said owner Jim Murton. The savings generated from energy costs so far has also helped expand North Country Rivers into a year-round operation and since 2011 has added about 15 full-time year-round jobs.
“We really wanted to be open 12 months a year and have a payroll 12 months a year for our key employees,” Murton said. “We really had to look at controlling energy costs if we wanted to stay open in the winter. This was really a key driving force in allowing us to go year-round and be a four-season outfitter.”
Reinventing the resort’s energy systems began in 2011 after they underwent an energy audit to examine ways they could save money and become more efficient, Murton said. He’d already started a similar energy revamp at his home in Vassalboro installing air source heat pumps, solar panels and a wood pellet boiler.
The audit was also a requirement in applying for rebates through the Efficiency Maine program, which up until 2010 offered rebates on solar power installations.
Months later North Country Rivers was awarded two grants from the USDA’s Rural Energy for America Program, or REAP. The first was a $9,359 grant for energy efficiency and the second was a $20,000 grant for solar energy.
The company installed a wood pellet boiler and a solar thermal water heater. The hot water heater captures heat from the sun on the roof of the main building, which houses a restaurant, offices and a game room, and uses it to heat large tanks of water in the basement. The water — which can get up to 180 degrees just from the heat of the sun — is used for showers, in the commercial kitchen and for other hot water needs.
The pellets in the wood boiler come from Bethel and are enough to heat the entire main building.
“The solution is right here,” Murton said. “Our energy is all coming locally. It’s coming out of the sky and out of the Maine woods.”
More recently, North Country applied for another REAP grant and was awarded $25,000 — about one-quarter of the cost of the solar panel project — along with an $8,000 grant to pay for air source heat pumps, a system that moves hot and cold air to generate heat or air conditioning.
A total of 143 panels were installed last week alongside a small group that were put in place as part of an experiment two years ago. The panels each generate about 255 watts of energy for a combined total of close to 40 kilowatts, or enough energy to make up about 50 percent of the resort’s electrical needs.
“Energy costs are going up and the cost of these systems is going down, which has led to a little bit of an uptick,” said John Luft, a branch manager for ReVision Energy, the company that installed the solar panels.
“I think if you surveyed people and said, ‘Would you use solar energy at your house?’ most people would say, ‘Yes, but it’s too expensive,’ and that’s what’s changed,” Luft said. He said the cost of manufacturing solar panels has gone down in comparison to the rising cost of other energy sources like oil.
When the solar energy system is up and running at North Country Rivers in a few weeks, the energy produced will be grid-tied, meaning that whatever energy is not used immediately is stored in the electrical grid and the resort gets a credit for the energy.
“It’s a huge step for us. If you can establish a fixed cost for your electricity, you don’t really have the volatility of the general energy market,” Murton said. Now, the resort spends about $16,000 per year on electricity and will cut that bill in half.
In addition to being more efficient and spending less money, one of the goals of the resort was to get away from using fossil fuels. Once the solar panels are running, the only oil that will be burned is a small amount of petroleum in the kitchen.
“It’s very difficult to run a business and plan for the future and to expand when you’re in an environment with such volatile energy costs,” Murton said, referring to the cost of oil.
The next step is to install air source heat pumps in the resort’s cabins along the Kennebec River.
“You can make individual changes yourself, which is great,” Murton said, “but with a business you really leverage your opportunities and the impact you have on your community.”
Rachel Ohm — 612-2368