Clough Toppan makes some good points about solar energy in Maine and the need for energy audits (column, “Dollars and sense of solar energy systems,” Dec. 23). We in Maine could and should be much more innovative in using solar energy. After all, Germany (north of us) gets 30 percent of its electric power from the sun.

If it is to make economic sense, however, the path to a viable solar future must begin with a “conservation first” approach.

Solar electric power systems should not, contrary to Toppan’s advice, be sized based on past electric bills. The cost of a system can be significantly reduced if super-efficient lighting and electrical appliances are purchased first. Most existing home appliances are woefully inefficient. Furthermore, photovoltaic panels are best not used for heating appliances such as stoves and water heaters.

Our small, off-grid photovoltaic system, for example, powers LED lights and a freezer that is the most efficient available. This has reduced the number of panels needed and thus, the cost. By the way, some of the panels are 36 years old and still going strong. Not having to pay electric bills during that time is an added bonus.

The “conserve first and save” mantra applies to our buildings, too.

Ideally every existing building should be retrofitted to make it more comfortable and less expensive to heat. That is where an energy audit is so useful. Clearly, if we button up and insulate our buildings well, we lessen our reliance on non-renewable fuels and gain long-term savings.

New buildings, particularly houses, should all be super-insulated. Such homes seldom need oil, gas or pellet furnaces — they are expensive and unnecessary. Further, passive solar heat through south facing windows can help heat the entire house. A number of such homes have been built in Maine, as have a couple of 100 percent solar-heated homes.

To date, we in Maine are way behind the times. The Germans have set the pace. What will it take to truly innovate? It begins with conservation. We have the skills, technology and huge solar potential. But where is the research, the incentives and the leadership?

Brian Kent of Litchfield holds degrees in architecture and urban design and has designed a number of solar homes. In the mid 1980s, he ran the Maine solar and energy efficiency building programs.

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