SMCC’s Trade Students Are Rising to the Occasion
by Liliana Palmer
South Portland is embracing solar power, and many new and ambitious energy projects from several companies and organizations are now underway with the help of SMCC graduates who are filling a lack of trade workers that is one of the limiting factors on solar power’s rapid growth.
South Portland is in many ways a hub for this movement towards renewable power, which is affecting every part of Maine. A piece for the Press Herald titled “Is South Portland the ‘greenest’ city in Maine? It’s a leader, for sure” lists a variety of the city’s efforts, which include one of Maine’s largest solar arrays and the leadership of the Municipal Energy Priorities coalition, which is meant to promote solar development, among other goals.
Almost all of these solar projects started in the last four years, showing clearer weather for the industry. Some have been very successful, like one in South Portland that’s now one of the largest municipal plants in the state, or an experiment by Sprague involving installing solar panels on oil tanks – now a pillar of the company’s sustainability policy. Other city’s efforts have faced varied struggles ranging from public outcry to leaking sewage. However, all of these cases represent a strong recent growth in solar power, with South Portland an undeniable leader.
“It’s almost the perfect energy source,”
Jamie McGhee, Electrical Engineering professor at SMCC, explained to The Beacon the changes he’s seen in solar technology during his 10 years of teaching his engineering students about it: “I’ve seen changes across the board, from inverter technology, to module technology, to regulations, to racking.. racking designs. So, it’s changed immensely in the past 10 years. The biggest impact on these changes has been systems are a lot quicker to install, less labor involved, they have a higher efficiency, and higher outputs, and lower costs than they were 10 years ago,” However, he said that solar power technology has been characterized by “incremental growth and development, and performance enhancement,” rather than any one breakthrough.
McGhee teaches the Renewable Energy Resources class, which is a required course all students in that department must take. He confirmed that many of his students have found work at ReVision Energy, a local solar company, to pursue local work in the renewable energy field.
He listed the benefits of solar PV (photovoltaics, the technology allowing sunlight to be made into electricity) to the SMCC Beacon, pointing out that ‘almost no moving parts’ meant very little maintenance, that the inevitable decommissioning of panels (taking apart to replace at end-of-life) is easy with solar compared to other power sources, especially wind turbines and nuclear reactors, and that solar panels can be crushed and recycled. “It’s almost the perfect energy source,” McGhee told the SMCC Beacon, with the single caveat that the power generated is intermittent (the amount is varied depending on sunlight rather than constant).
Part One: Roll-on Solar Panels and Tanks Full of Sun
While most of the recent activity in solar power is coming from local solar companies, there is one interesting exception. Sprague, the New England oil and gas wholesaler, began experimenting with solar power in 2019, partnering with New Hampshire solar company Picktricity and installing a wide swatch of special thin solar panels on top of one of their massive white tanks at the familiar South Portland terminal, which borders I-295 and can be easily seen across the harbor.
Sprague’s original solar tank partner Picktricity specializes in very light ‘thin-film’ solar panels that look like thin rubber mats. The idea is that they are light enough to install on weak roofs – or oil tanks – without needing racking (aluminum frames). Kevin Maloney, CEO and founder of Picktricity, explained: “We didn’t do conventional houses or buildings or whatever, we kinda found a niche solving unique issues and problems, and it led us to these solar panels that some people call flexible lightweight.. they roll on. You know, they weigh less than a pound per square foot, and they don’t have a lot of the structural issues associated with conventional glass panels.”
Asked to explain the initial decision to install these panels, Sprague stated to the SMCC Beacon that: “In 2017, we were introduced to the concept of the thin film solar panel technology. From there we investigated the potential of using the technology at our facilities and since the thin-film solar panels are lightweight and can be adhered directly to building surfaces, using the top of our storage tanks made the most sense given the large unobstructed surface area they provide. We used Tank 3 at South Portland as a pilot program to learn and investigate the potential of applying this technology at all our existing assets to generate energy savings while enhancing our sustainability efforts,”
Today, Sprague’s “Tank #3” proudly bears the painted title of “First Solar Tank in Nation,” and it wasn’t the last. On November 4th, 2021, Sprague made an announcement on their site explaining that they had solarized a tank in an Rensselaer, New York (a town just outside Albany) terminal, and planned more. While South Portland’s “Tank #3” supplies 10% of the terminal’s energy needs (“nearly 100,000 kWh” a year), the Rensselaer project is intended to cover all of that terminal’s needs, with the announcement stating: “The solar implementation is expected to fully offset the annual electricity demand at this facility.” Sprague also stated to the SMCC Beacon that “The Maine tank (the first of its kind in the world), has been producing nearly 100,000 kWh of energy per year, and the solar tanks in Rensselaer are expected to generate 650,000 kWh/year. By installing the panels on multiple tanks at terminal locations, we expect further energy production,”
Any commuter on I-295 who is unaware of the solar tank project might reasonably wonder how exactly one would fill a tank with sunlight after seeing Tank #3’s slogan. Yet in a sense, this was a serious possibility. Sprague’s website links to a video produced by Axel Johnson Inc. (Sprague’s largest shareholder until Hartree Partners overtook it in May 2021) that discusses Tank #3 and shows a few interviews with Sprague’s leadership and Maloney. In it, Maloney says (at 4:30) “There’s a million steel tanks in the United States. It represents one of the largest single solar opportunities – definable solar opportunities – in the United States, never mind the balance of the world, and there’s a very real possibility we can turn these tanks into batteries,”
Continuing, Maloney said “They can turn some percentage of these tanks into sea salt slurry batteries. These batteries contain no rare earth metals, no harmful materials.. So, as we turn those assets into batteries, these are not going to be, you know, batteries that run a car, these are gonna be batteries that run towns,”
Asked by the SMCC Beacon about the idea of making these batteries, Maloney laughed, explaining the practical difficulties behind that idea. “The technology exists to turn an oil tank into a battery, it’s called a sea salt slurry. It would need a bunch of cash. And, you know, we’re a for profit organization, so we’ve focused on just selling and installing what we have.” He brought up the problem of materials for a battery: “There’s a membrane that goes inside – typically the membrane they make is measured in square meters, and we would need something on the magnitude of a thousand square meters. So the scalability isn’t quite there yet. But that would be the goal. Couple gigawatt batteries just sitting around in tanks that don’t do anything.”
In the time since Tank #3 came online, Sprague has changed it’s solarization process, and the company’s leadership changed hands, with its largest shareholder going from Axel Johnson to Hartree Partners in May 2021. Asked how their partnership with Picktricity worked, Sprague stated “We partnered with Picktricity to complete our first Solar Tank pilot project, but since then we have changed many aspects of the design, installation, and equipment used requiring us to work with a network of vendors,” Maloney told the SMCC Beacon that: “We did some tanks in York, stuff like that, we’ve moved on. They had – their company was just sold, Sprague was just sold, so they had changes in ownership and things like that, so. The business just moved on, know what I mean? We’re a for-profit organization, so we had to make some money. We do business with a number of oil companies, but mostly our relationships now are with the roofing companies”
Whether or not the plan for giant batteries will be realized, the solar tank in South Portland remains an example of solar power’s growing appeal to a variety of organizations.
Part Two: South Portland and Solar’s Successes
A short trip from the terminal, just down the road from South Portland High School on Highland Avenue (from where you can see the Sprague terminal tanks alongside the distant Portland skyline), what was Maine’s largest “municipal solar facility” at its opening in 2017 has been producing 1,200,000 kWh every year using 2,944 photovoltaic panels – “roughly 12 percent of the electricity used by the city’s municipal and school buildings,” according to the Press Herald.
This large solar farm is built on South Portland’s transfer station, or landfill, in a giant clearing set back away from the downhill winding access road, opposite the sand depot and a fenced-in pile of rubbish. Like most capped landfills, it looks like a somewhat barren hillside, with the exception of the six rows of solar panels, with the southern four stretching out 275 meters in length (roughly 3 football fields) and the northern two reaching 200 meters long.
According to the U.S Energy Information Agency, the average yearly power use of an American household as of 2020 was 10,715 kWh, meaning this installation provides roughly enough power a year for 110 homes. South Portland’s site links to a dashboard showing the power production of the array and it’s lifetime impact: according to that, 4.66 GWh has been produced since installation, offsetting the burning of 364,961 gallons of gasoline at the time of writing.
This is the most visible example of South Portland’s energy policy, but the city’s actions go much farther than just that. The Press Herald reported in 2019 that South Portland’s policy of knowledge sharing around sustainability has helped other communities, specifically Gray, develop solar projects. That article also details South Portland’s leadership of the Municipal Energy Priorities coalition, of which Portland and 16 other towns are members, making this an interesting case where Portland is not the main authority.
The transfer station array was built by ReVision Energy, a Maine-based solar company that’s been responsible for a long list of projects in New England – over 9,000, according to their site, which features a map of the region with the entire area between Augusta and Boston covered with pins marking their projects. Their regional HQ is in South Portland, just south of the airport, and many of their employees were trained at SMCC (at least 10, according to co-founder Phil Coupe, and possibly many more). ReVision Energy has a long history in Maine, and is an evolution of a company founded on the Midcoast in 2003.
One of the services they offer is ‘community solar’ – an arrangement where homeowners can buy shares or panels in a solar farm, receiving part of the energy produced for their home. Phil Coupe, co-founder of ReVision Energy, explained to the SMCC Beacon: “Under Maine’s new community solar laws, which came into existence two and a half years ago, people can purchase a share in a remote solar large array, or buy a subscription to the array. So a homeowner can say ‘I need the electricity from 20 panels in the array to meet my household electricity demand,’ and so, using the utility wire infrastructure, we can allocate the output of 20 panels to that homeowner somewhere in the surrounding community… It means if you can’t have solar on your own property, this gives you a way to participate in solar energy without having those panels around,”
“Bottom line, our latitude is a sunny one because we are at the same latitude as famously sunny places like Monaco on the French Riviera.”
ReVision’s website explains at length why solar power is feasible in Maine despite our notoriously drab winters, reminding us that Maine has a favorable latitude for sunlight nonetheless. As Phil Coupe put it to the SMCC Beacon: “Bottom line, our latitude is a sunny one because we are at the same latitude as famously sunny places like Monaco on the French Riviera.” Their site also claims that solar panels work better in the cold, which Jamie McGhee confirmed in his interview with the Beacon: “Photovoltaic modules are more efficient in cold weather. So that is true. And it’s a fairly substantial efficiency increase. It would be.. in Maine, it could be at at least 10% efficiency increase if you have identical conditions about at noon on January, on a cold day, and you go out at noon in summer, June on a hot day, you would see probably around at least 10% efficiency improvement based on that cold weather,”
Part Three: Obstacles Cast Shadows on Solar’s Growth
Despite the amount of local interest around solar in recent years, there are many ongoing difficulties for the industry. In his interview with the SMCC Beacon, Phil Coupe stated frustrations with developing community solar under the previous administration: “Prior to Governor Mills coming in, Maine had community solar laws that really constricted the size of projects. Just to give you an example, one of those laws limited the number of members in a community solar farm to nine people. This limit made it impossible to achieve economies of scale, which made the projects too expensive for most people. Now, under the new legislation, there’s no limit on how many people can be involved in a single solar farm.. but it has also blown the lid off solar development to the point where the utility is overwhelmed with the number of projects that are simultaneously trying to connect onto the utility grid,”
“Right now in society… the pendulum has swung away from the trade schools and community colleges over towards the four year degree realm, and so we don’t have the cohort of electricians and plumbers we used to have historically… So we need every kid in Jamie McGhee’s class at SMCC to hopefully come into the clean energy industry,”
According to Coupe, solar’s rapid expansion, especially in cases of ‘beneficial electrification’ – meaning cases where renewables are directly replacing fossil fuels as an energy source (rather than working besides them) – has caused problems for the industry because of the sheer demand. “We’re scheduling home visits right now into January. And that’s just to go meet the homeowner and do an estimate. For installs, we’re scheduling work in February and March. And that’s because there just aren’t enough workers to do all the work, and in the solar industry there are specific requirements about having licensed electricians on every project, and so you have to have this certain ratio of a license on each job, along with other people who might be junior workers”
Coupe connected this problem to a general lack of focus on the trades: “You need apprentice electricians, you need journeyman electricians, and most of all you need master electricians. And right now in society… the pendulum has swung away from the trade schools and community colleges over towards the four year degree realm, and so we don’t have the cohort of electricians and plumbers we used to have historically. So basically, that skilled, licensed, electrician workforce is aging out, and there’s intense demand for all of those electricians, both in the surging renewable energy industry as well as in the traditional construction side of things. So we need every kid in Jamie McGhee’s class at SMCC to hopefully come into the clean energy industry,” Coupe also expressed hope for a “pipeline” of SMCC students to ReVision.
Kevin Maloney, Picktricity’s founder, also expressed difficulties along those lines: “Right now, finding electricians is very hard,” he told the SMCC Beacon, stating that they are “very expensive and few and far between.”
Solar power faces additional obstacles beyond labor, notably access to land and sufficient electrical infrastructure to support its growth. Phil Coupe brought up a major May 2019 report by prominent energy researcher and consultant Dr. Richard Silkman titled “A New Energy Policy Direction for Maine: A Pathway to a Zero-Carbon Economy by 2050,” in arguing that solar urgently needs more infrastructure to keep growing, as well as more standardization in regulations, saying that ‘disparate’ zoning and permits make it difficult to do projects in different places.
Silkman’s abstract for that paper explains his vision for a carbon-free Maine by 2050, which he states “need not and cannot be just an aspirational goal.” Empathising that this is an achievable goal, he calls for “investing an average of $2 billion a year for the next thirty years in new solar PV, on-shore and off-shore wind and battery storage systems and in expansions to the electric grid to accommodate the increased use of electricity and the interconnection of thousands of new distributed and utility-scale generating plants within the state,”
However, planned development of infrastructure has led to conflicts in some places. The Press Herald reports that a project to build a solar farm in Augusta is still being discussed today after a temporary ban on all solar projects in the city was passed in August, stating: “Councilors indicated interest in the project, but said that interest would be much less if the power lines to the site are run above ground and visible along Tall Pines Way, the road through Bond Brook Recreation Area,”
Additionally, beyond navigating zoning laws, land use is deeply important to solar’s growth. The Maine Audubon Society has expressed concern that uncontrolled growth of renewable energy might damage the environment, and partnered with ReVision to make an unofficial list of siting standards encouraging developments on barren land or areas already filled with buildings and away from natural habitats. Their brief “Best Practices” pamphlet opens “Increasing renewable energy production in Maine is critical to mitigating the impacts of climate change on Maine’s natural resources and agricultural and natural resource based economies. Solar projects that follow these low-impact best practices will help Maine people, businesses, and communities realize solar’s climate and economic benefits, while avoiding or significantly reducing undue impacts to wildlife, farming, and critical natural resources such as clean water,”
Some of the points include developing on barren land, avoiding cutting into forests, preserving habitat connectivity (by not splitting habitats into isolated islands), and avoiding pesticide use. Audubon’s siting standards are accompanied by a publicly available interactive mapping tool that lets users find ideal spots for building away from habitats, which include gravel pits, landfills, and superfund sites (EPA managed hazmat zones). These areas are barren of life and thus building on them has little environmental impact. However, the Portland Press Herald reported in 2017 that Portland’s attempt at building a similar array to South Portland’s on a landfill on Ocean Avenue was abruptly halted by discovery of damage to the topsoil and the presence of leachate (runoff). That array did eventually open in 2018, and now generates a similar amount of energy to South Portland’s array, which never faced such problems.
A very high number of the projects in ReVision’s portfolio follow the Audubon model. Beyond the South Portland and Portland projects built on reclaimed landfill, there are many others, including one for the city of Lebanon and one for Cumberland. Countless more adhere to the standard of building in already developed areas, as many are rooftop installations. Sprague’s solar tanks are also a good example of using developed areas for solar projects.
While ReVision has completed many large solar farms, they have also done many smaller home installations. Both McGhee and Coupe discussed the benefits of centralized arrays like at the South Portland transfer station to the SMCC Beacon; McGhee stated that roofs are ‘not the ideal place’ for solar panels because they aren’t necessarily aligned with the sun, and Coupe pointed out that Maine is the has the most forested place in America, and thus many spots are too shady (not as serious an issue with solar farms, which are built in wide clearings).
But Phil Coupe also brought up another dimension to power generation: reliability: “My personal view is that the world.. seems to be destabilizing. Particularly from an extreme weather standpoint. So we’re getting heavier rainfall, stronger winds, more powerful storms overall… So storms can knock out centralized power quite readily. And so one of the benefits of distributed power like rooftop solar for example, is that it gives the homeowner and the community a lot more resilience because it’s unlikely a storm is gonna be able to take down a residential solar array that has a battery backup component. So we have found that those distributed residential and commercial systems tend to be extremely resilient, and so far, the larger centralized solar farms that we’ve built – they haven’t been damaged by any storms, but I do think they’re a little bit more vulnerable in the long run.” After a pause, he finished by stating: “I also want to point out that distributed solar is the most resilient kind of power supply that exists,”
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