Going Green: July 10, 2009

Smart solar
By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  July 8, 2009

Maine will never be a leader in wind-energy development, says Richard Silkman, co-founder and -manager of a firm that could revolutionize the way we address energy issues in this state and throughout the region. "We missed our chance," he stated flatly during a presentation at the Maine Audubon Society in June.

But now we have a new shot at trendsetter status, in a different industry — solar. And Silkman, along with business partner Mark Isaacson, has a plan to get us there. The proposal, GridSolar, calls for 800 megawatts of solar-energy installations to be built in open fields around Maine (covering approximately 8000 of the state's 22 million-plus acres) by 2017. The solar fields would serve as back-up power sources, helping meet the state's energy needs when demand is at its peak and exceeds available megawattage.

Central Maine Power estimates that in about a decade, demand will exceed supply during approximately 10 percent of hours over the course of a year. To address this shortfall, CMP proposes spending more than $1.5 billion (with much of the cost shared among the New England states, through an arrangement with ISO-New England, the regional electricity transmission organization that helps maintain power reliability) to upgrade its transmission capacity, building new transmission lines and substations, and restoring old ones. These improvements would prevent potential blackouts.

But the CMP proposal is "outdated," Silkman says. It puts too much emphasis on large-scale, centralized generation that best serves a manufacturing base (which consumes power 24/7), as opposed to the modern reality of consumers (residential, commercial, and institutional) that follow a more regular workday schedule and are better suited to smaller, "distributed," local generation. And in calling for enormous logistical and financial investments, the CMP proposal creates some equally enormous redundancies.

GridSolar is an alternative, its proponents claim (the League of Young Voters and several state legislators have already signed on as cheerleaders). At full build-out, these solar fields would save 500,000 tons of greenhouse gases per year, the equivalent of taking 100,000 cars off the road in Maine. And by selling renewable-energy credits, capitalizing on tax incentives, and benefiting from a modular design that would be cheaper to install than customized residential units, Silkman claims that GridSolar could be cost-competitive — even when compared to the CMP proposal, which has a pretty guaranteed return.

Of course, there are potential pitfalls. Until better battery technology for storing solar energy is developed, there will still be some demand that GridSolar wouldn't be able to meet. In those cases, a combination of demand-response reduction (calling on heavy users to decrease their power consumption at peak-load times) and additional generation (using natural-gas fired engines) would fill in the gaps.

GridSolar's biggest obstacle, however, is getting state officials on board, which could determine whether or not Maine misses another opportunity. It's not just the Public Utilities Commission, which is under pressure from CMP to stall GridSolar's application.

Top-level figures in the administration — including Governor John Baldacci and John Richardson, state commissioner of economic and community development — haven't responded so far to GridSolar's attempts at communication. For example, when Silkman and Isaacson learned that a Chinese leader in solar-cell production, Suntech, was looking to build factories in the United States, they immediately notified the administration of the green-collar job possibilities. No response. David Farmer, the governor's spokesman, told me that while the governor is "intrigued" by GridSolar, "he doesn't see it as an alternative" to the CMP reliability project. One deals with transmission, the other addresses generation, Farmer said. "They're separate projects."

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