The Mills administration is drawing up a request for proposals over the coming weeks to install solar-electric panels on the Blaine House, an action meant to signal that Maine once again aims to be a leader in clean energy development.

First mentioned Jan. 2 by Gov. Janet Mills during her inaugural speech, the move is steeped in symbolism.

To the extent that panels on the governor’s home are visible from street level, they will make a very public policy statement. They will signal that Mills wants Maine to reclaim its place as a national innovator in energy efficiency and renewable technology and usher in a green-energy future, according to her communications director, Scott Ogden.

Unstated but obvious, the installation also will serve as a physical repudiation of the energy policies of former Gov. Paul LePage, who largely ignored concerns about climate change, and worked against solar and wind power development during his eight years in office.

Also little remembered is the historical precedent – 40 years ago now – for what Mills is proposing, and Maine’s odd role in a sequel to the saga of the nation’s most-famous sun-powered installation.

In 1979, President Jimmy Carter had 32 solar hot water panels installed on the White House roof. Carbon footprint and global warming weren’t in the national vocabulary. Carter was responding to a different crisis: The United States was being held hostage by foreign oil. With solar technology just evolving, Carter wondered aloud if – a generation on – his heater would become a curiosity, a museum piece or an example of a road not taken.

“Or it can be just a small part of one of the greatest and most exciting adventures ever undertaken by the American people,” he concluded.

What actually happened was more convoluted. President Ronald Reagan was dismissive of renewable energy when he took office. He removed the panels during a roofing project in 1986, after which they were stored in a Virginia warehouse. In a strange twist, a Unity College professor rescued them in 1991 and brought them to Maine. Sixteen of the panels were refurbished and heated water at the school’s cafeteria until 2010, the end of their useful life.

Surrounded by members of the media, President Jimmy Carter inspects the 32 solar hot water panels he had installed on the White House roof in June 1979. After his successor had them removed, the panels eventually ended up in Maine, where they were put to use at Unity College.

The story of Carter’s solar panels and the Unity College connection was highlighted in the work of two Swiss filmmakers, a 2010 documentary called “A Road Not Taken.”

Since Carter’s action, both hot water and solar electric panels have been installed on the White House, and several state governors have placed various solar arrays on executive mansions.

The results have been a mix of symbolism and substance. For instance: In Illinois, four solar-electric panels generate a small fraction of what a typical home uses. In Maryland, a solar hot water system is large enough to meet half of the annual demand.

BLAINE HOUSE ELECTRIC BILL

No design has been presented yet by the Mills administration, so it’s too soon to know how much of a dent solar could make in the Blaine House’s annual power bill. Ogden said reducing taxpayer money spent on electricity is part of the goal, so it’s likely to be more than a token installation.

The Blaine House is warmed by efficient electric heat pumps, installed in 2014 to offset an old oil boiler. It cost $11,292 to power the building in 2018, state records show, with monthly electric bills of more than $1,000 from November to March.

One way to gauge the savings potential is with an estimate produced in 2015, as part of an April Fool’s joke.

This view of the Blaine House, the governor’s mansion in Augusta, shows the south side, where solar panels would likely be installed under proposals solicited by Gov. Janet Mills. The edifice was built in 1833.

Frustrated by the LePage administration’s policies, Portland-based ReVision Energy posted a computer-simulated rendering of the Blaine House with 74 solar panels mounted on multiple roofs. With a generating capacity of 21 kilowatts, a similar installation could offset half of the building’s electric needs, ReVision estimated.

ReVision is the state’s largest solar installer. Fortunat Mueller, a co-founder, said a 74-panel system would cost between $50,000 and $75,000, minus a 30 percent federal tax credit that remains in effect until the end of 2019.

But this rough calculation omits some key considerations.

State governments and nonprofits such as churches can’t take advantage of the federal tax credit. So solar installers commonly draw up a power purchase agreement, in which private investors finance the project, then sell the power back to the nonprofit at negotiated rates. This would eliminate upfront capital costs for the state. Deals vary widely, but the idea is to lock in rates that are expected to be cheaper than market prices for up to 40 years. The agreement can also offer a nonprofit the ability to buy the project in future years.

HISTORICAL CONSIDERATIONS

The number of panels also could be influenced by aesthetics.

The Blaine House is on the National Register of Historic Places, built in 1833 and donated to the state by the family of James G. Blaine in 1919. That doesn’t preclude installing solar panels, according to Kirk Mohney, director of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission. Most likely, he said, review of the project would be done by the Capitol Planning Commission, which oversees a master plan of how development takes place at the government campuses on the east and west banks of the Kennebec River. From time to time, Mohney said, his agency is asked for advice.

“Until we know more about the scope of the project, I really don’t know what to respond to,” he said.

ReVision’s 74-panel mock-up covered most of the south-facing roofs, looking across Capitol Street to the State House. But Mueller said in the real world, installers would examine other options, such as an adjacent garage. Balancing the look of a historic building with performance could be a challenge.

“I suspect the governor would like them to be visible,” he said. “That’s part of the point. Sending a message to citizens, industry and legislators sounds to me like an important piece of symbolism.”

But when Carter installed his panels, solar energy was a novel concept to most Americans and solar-electric installations were rare and costly. Today, millions of photovoltaic or PV panels dot the landscape and solar electricity is becoming price-competitive with fossil fuels.

‘SENDS A STRONGER MESSAGE’

So does symbolism still matter?

“I think it does,” said Gordon Weil, an energy consultant who headed Maine’s energy office in 1980, during the Carter era.

Weil remembered that he installed an air-type solar collector at his home, which helped heat one room.

“Being state energy director, I thought it would set an example,” he said.

Setting an example still matters, Weil said. Solar panels send a message to clean-energy investors and draw a contrast to LePage’s policies.

Weil recalled LePage’s actions that scuttled a power-purchase agreement with a Norwegian energy company for a pilot floating wind farm. It led the company to build the project in Scotland and became a cautionary tale for the fledgling offshore wind industry’s aspirations for Maine.

“If we say we’re open for business, we ought to be open for business for everyone,” he said. “This will help, in a small way, announce to the world that we’re going to do what’s good for Maine.”

When a governor installs solar panels on the official residence, it still is noticed by people and businesses, according to Avery Palmer, a spokesman for The Solar Foundation. The national advocacy group conducts a census each year on the number of solar-related jobs in each state. In 2017, Maine had 713 jobs and ranked 40th.

“Sometimes you see solar on a city hall or municipal building,” Palmer said. “Solar on an important public landmark sends a stronger message than at a landfill.”

 

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