The prospect of reduced energy prices during the next 12 months has not dampened interest or enthusiasm for solar power. Certainly the idea of significantly reduced electric bills are the main goal for many. Others are attracted by the idea of reducing their carbon footprint to do their part for climate change. Affordability continues to increase, particularly with bulk purchase plans being implemented.

As a result of this interest, Sustain Mid Maine Coalition held its first “Solarize Mid Maine” information session in September to explore the interest in a regional “group purchase” of solar voltaic equipment and the associated installation expenses. More than 70 participants, some attending from the far-flung communities of North Anson, Gardiner, Winthrop and Unity, packed the room at Colby’s Diamond Building.

We started the meeting with a short presentation about the coalition, a nonprofit organization focused on promoting sustainable living practices in the Mid Maine region. The coalition’s energy team is focused on three projects:

• Free energy consultations (by trained local volunteers).

• WindowDressers (low-cost interior window inserts that are assembled by coalition volunteers during what is called a “community build”).

• Solarize Mid Maine Project.

Solarize Mid Maine is similar to other New England initiatives, including a project run by Vital Communities in the Upper Connecticut River Valley of New Hampshire and Vermont, and more locally, a project organized recently by the town of Freeport.

We look to gather 400 interested homeowners, businesses and solar farm participants who will receive a free site evaluation as well as a quote. For participants who decide to go forward, the total cost includes licensing and permitting, equipment and installation, and connection to Central Maine Power. Installations before the end of 2016 will qualify for a 30 percent federal income tax credit or accelerated depreciation for business (five years), and the potential bulk cost discount of 8 percent to 10 percent.

Three solar voltaic experts answered questions from the audience and shared their experiences with individual residences and small businesses. Options for those with poor roof exposure was discussed. Economists and energy experts from Colby College contributed to the discussion.

A second public information meeting will be held at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 22 in Room 145, Diamond Building, Colby College, Waterville.

We will continue to introduce our Mid Maine community to the idea that many people can afford solar systems. While many may make the solar decision based on values alone, the Oct. 22 meeting is designed to help those who need more information before signing up to subsequent site evaluations and cost estimates.

We will help people look at their total energy consumption, whether it be electricity, oil, gas, propane or wood. We will quantify their total energy cost and suggest changes they can make. After that, we will factor in solar power.

We also can explore the possibility of optimizing their solar energy generation by adding a heat pump to reduce their use of other fuels.

A number of banks and credit unions have low-interest energy loans available to help finance the purchase and installation. Financing options, tax incentives, group buy discounts will be part of the payback estimate reviewed on Oct. 22.

People can begin their discovery today by determining their current fuel use (oil, gas, propane and wood). They can look at their CMP bill to determine how many kilowatt hours (kWh) their home uses each month (or call CMP and ask for help using the data from the smart meter). People should take this information with them when they come to the meeting.

People who have questions before the meeting can email me at [email protected]

John Reuthe is a home energy program evaluator and a residential energy program manager. He has been the director of Sustain Mid Maine Coalition’s Home Energy Program since 2010.