Politics & Other Mistakes: No charge

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Maybe you thought solar power works like this: You put a panel or two on your roof to capture the sun’s energy, run an electrical cord from there to your toaster oven, your washing machine or the charger for your sex toys. Then, you sit back and enjoy free juice. If by “free” you mean you’ll recoup the cost of this setup a few years after you die (the date may depend on how often you make toast — Six times a day? You pervert! — wash your undies or have an orgasm).

For most home solar fans, that’s not how it works.

Al DiamonA couple of panels are fine for hippies living off the grid. All they care about is keeping in harmony with Mother Earth and growing organic pot. But the average homeowner with south-facing frontage has another incentive to cover their yard with the ugliest possible lawn ornaments: There’s the potential of making serious cash.

Imagine a scenario in which Central Maine Power doesn’t send you a bill each month, but instead owes you money. That’s potentially what happens if you have enough solar generation to operate all your electrical devices and still produce surplus power. CMP has to credit you for the excess.

For that to happen, you can’t just capture the extra volts in a big battery and truck it to your local utility. That would be inefficient, and I’m not even sure the electrical thingies you’re supposed to capture are volts. They might be kilowatts or amperes or shockeroos.

Doesn’t matter. The point is that to earn all that credit for generating electricity, your solar panels have to be connected to the grid. And that ain’t as easy as it appears.

According to a recent story in the Bangor Daily News, “some Mainers have had their applications denied due to a lack of capacity on the electric grid.” Large home installations can produce such high voltage that they could damage CMP’s equipment.

How widespread is this problem? Nobody knows. The Maine Public Utilities Commission doesn’t keep track and doesn’t seem to be particularly concerned, because being particularly concerned isn’t part of the PUC’s job description. You’ll be shocked (heh) to learn that the commission has some history of overlooking these sorts of messy issues.

According to the Bangor paper, the price of an average solar system capable of powering a home filled with devices both naughty and nice has dropped dramatically in recent years, and now costs less than $20,000. At current (heh) rates, such a setup could pay for itself in less than 20 years, but if huge rate-hike requests currently pending before the PUC are approved, the payback might be, I dunno, a couple of weeks.

Home solar installations keep looking more and more attractive. That means more and more consumers are going to be installing them. And that means more and more applications to connect to the grid are going to be rejected.

The problem here is that CMP and Versant Power were woefully unprepared to deal with alternative energy. Even though solar and wind projects have been ramping up for decades, the electric companies have paid little attention to the pressures this trend would place on their systems.

“There’s only so much room on distribution lines,” a Versant spokeswoman told the Bangor Daily, “and with all the demands to interconnect larger projects, we’re running out of room for all projects without the necessary expensive upgrades needed to maintain the safety and reliability of the system.”

The operative words there are “expensive upgrades.” A year ago, CMP reached a settlement with commercial solar companies to speed up connecting their projects to the grid. As part of that deal, the utility was required to admit it should have been aware of the demand that solar farms would make on its system and have prepared for that eventuality. But it’s under no similar legal obligation to show the same courtesy to home solar advocates.

In other words, those “expensive upgrades” aren’t happening, because there’s no extra profit for CMP and Versant in helping homeowners become mini-electricity producers.

If you want to keep your sexually oriented devices fully charged, better stock up on batteries.

Shocking comments may be emailed to [email protected].

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