Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Despite lack of state assistance, businesses still encourage people to go solar

Tuesday, Aug. 26, 2008

Associate Editor

ARUNDEL — Nearly all of the funds of the state’s solar power rebate program have been reserved by applicants through next year, but the popularity of the rebate program is working against some solar power providers.

“The rebates stifle business,” said Naoto Inoue, owner of Solar Market in Arundel. “People stop buying solar until the new set of rebates comes in. We’re better off without it.”

A total of $500,000 is designated for the solar investment rebates each year. The money was already reserved by June this year, the fastest it’s ever gone, said Fred Bever, spokesman for Efficiency Maine, which administers the rebates.

For private homes and businesses, the state rebate program provides 25 to 35 percent of the cost for solar installments, up to $3,000. But when the program runs out of money, much of the local business dries up, said Inoue – so he’s lobbying to have it retracted.

Since the rebate program began, Inoue said Solar Market is getting more calls from people who can only afford to invest in solar power with the rebate – and often back out once they realize they can’t obtain state aid.

Solar Market has been able to stay afloat largely by doing business out of state, said Inoue.

“The money ran out about a month and a half ago, so there’s virtually no business anymore in Maine,” he said.

Other solar companies are more optimistic, however. In Kennebunk, a new start-up, Skyconnect Solar, has just completed staff training through the PUC.

“With oil prices recently, solar just seems to be taking off,” said Erinn Mccusker, who owns the business with her fiancé, Carl Jones.

“It’s a little unfortunate (the rebate program) took off so quickly that all of the money is exhausted,” she said. “Once it’s back up and running I think it would help.”

The cost of solar installments can range widely, from as little as $5,000 to more than $100,000. According to PUC data for 2007, most rebates came in at about $1,250, with solar power systems ranging from $5,000 to $50,000. Most systems cost about $12,000.

Those who make the investment in solar electricity or hot water save considerable amounts of money in the long run, said Inoue, because their costs are fixed for the life of the system.

But it’s a major up-front expense that most homeowners can’t afford without some help – and that help may become even harder to get.

Federal tax credits are still available for solar investments – at 30 percent of the cost of the system, up to $2,000 –-but are set to expire at the end of the year, unless renewal legislation is passed.

In Maine, the rebate program was also originally scheduled to end in 2008, but was extended through 2010 due to consumer interest. It is funded by a small charge on electric bills throughout the state. The cap for rebates is $2.75 million.

In 2009, solar rebates will be limited further because the state legislature has allotted 20 percent of the $500,000 to go toward wind power initiatives, said Bever.

“It is clear that demand is fast increasing,” said Bever, who said that many solar installers who are certified with the Public Utilities Commission are booked through December.

Rep. Larry Bliss (South Portland/Cape Elizabeth), chair of the House Energy and Utilities Committee, said he believed that the public’s interest in investing in alternative energy sources was strong previously. Now that oil is more than $100 per barrel, he said, “I’m even more sure that the public understands the necessity to move away from dependence on fossil fuel.”

State legislation was recently passed to provide the wind power rebates as well, and there is not another funding source available, said Bliss.

“It’s not unreasonable to earmark part of the funding for (wind power),” Bliss said in written correspondence. “The goal, of course, is to move the state in the direction of alternative sources of energy, and to decrease our reliance on fossil fuels.”

The rebate allotment of $500,000 per-year is based upon available funds, as determined by the PUC, said Bliss.

“It would be terrific if we could double or triple that amount,” he said. “But we can’t offer rebates with funds that we don’t have.”

For more information on state rebates, visit; for federal rebates visit

— Contact Kristen Schulze Muszynski, call 282-1535 ext. 322 or e-mail at

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