October 21, 2012

Thomas installs largest solar panel system in state

By Amy Calder acalder@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

WATERVILLE -- The largest solar panel system in the state will be erected this week on the roof of the Alfond Athletic Center at Thomas College, according to college officials.

The 12,600-square-foot, 170-kilowatt solar photovoltaic array is expected to provide 11 percent of the college's energy needs and pay for itself in 15 years; it is projected to save Thomas more than $500,000 over its expected life span of 35-plus years.

"When we pay less for energy, students pay less for an education," said Christopher Rhoda, who is vice president of information services at Thomas and oversees energy conservation on campus. "For us, it's as much about controlling costs as it is about generating revenue."

The 700 solar panels will be installed on railings atop the athletic center roof, Rhoda said. Workers this week are expected to start installing the panels, which are roughly 3-by-5-feet, 1.5 inches thick and weigh 44 pounds each.

The $700,000 project -- for which Thomas will ultimately pay only about $175,000 -- is possible through a special program devised by ReVision Energy, the company doing the project.

Thomas is partnering with ReVision, a for-profit company, on the project, which is being financed through a power purchase agreement. As part of that agreement, Coastal Enterprises Inc. of Lewiston provides project financing to ReVision, which installs, owns and manages the solar energy system for six years. During that time, Thomas will buy the electricity it produces from ReVision and ultimately will purchase the system from ReVision at a reduced rate, Rhoda said.

Bill Behrens, co-founder of ReVision, which has offices in Liberty, Portland and Exeter, N.H., said his company has done smaller but similar partnerships with organizations including Good Will-Hinckley, Unity College, College of the Atlantic, Natural Resources Council of Maine and Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens.

ReVision is the only company that does such partnering with nonprofits on solar energy systems and does not make a profit, supporting itself with other projects for individuals and businesses, he said. But ultimately, the nonprofit projects keep people employed and provide alternative energy, which is important for the state, Behrens said

"Financially, we feel if we break even at it, we're actually creating something in Maine that wouldn't otherwise exist, so that's valuable to us," he said.

Behrens says there's no reason why Maine should buy electricity from outside its borders, because the state has plenty of sunshine and it is underutilized. It takes people with vision, such as educators and college officials, to work on a project that will be sustainable into the future, according to Behrens.

"You can't do this if you are just thinking about the next six months or a year," he said. "You have to have that vision that your institution is going to be here for the long haul."

Thomas College President Laurie Lachance said in a press release that the solar project is part of the college's energy plan.

"That plan seeks to provide Thomas College with diverse renewable energy sources that will lower long-term energy expenses and keep tuition costs down," she said.

Rhoda has 20 solar panels at his own home which offsets about 75 percent of his home electricity, he said. He also has solar tubes to heat hot water and, where he once used 1,300 gallons of oil a year, he now uses less than 30 because he also has a wood pellet boiler, he said.

Thomas uses a lot of oil, propane and electricity and always is looking at ways to reduce costs, he said. Diversifying energy sources for campus is a way of reducing costs, as when the price of one source goes up, another can be tapped. The college also hopes to take advantage of natural gas in the future, he said.

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