A solar feat with and a portent of things to come
Snow Pond Center for the Arts is a truly remarkable place. It sits in Sidney, Maine, a town with a population of 4,650, in the central part of the state. Nevertheless, Snow Pond has the second largest outdoor amphitheater in North America, Bowl in the Pines. Last summer, singer-songwriter, Michael Franti, performed in it before 2,700 people. Clearly, Snow Pond draws people from beyond its immediate area.
Founded in 1937 as the New England Music Camp, Snow Pond developed a devoted set of children, families, alumni, and others over the years. This should be no surprise, because it was widely known for the quality of its instruction, in addition to its recreational and cultural activities as a summer camp. Over time, it became clear that despite the sparsely populated area it was in, and despite the cold winters, the demand for its services teaching music and arts did not end when fall arrived.
In 2014, Snow Pond took a major step forward by growing beyond its seasonal status. Christa Johnson, Director of Development, explained, “Compelled by our summer programs’ positive impact on thousands of youths, particularly those in under-resourced rural areas, Snow Pond is committed to providing year-round arts opportunities on a scale that would make a substantial difference for youth in central Maine. … Although our Sidney campus is the hub of our performances, events, and camps, we strive to weave the arts into the fabric of the local community through free arts education programs throughout Kennebec County.”
As impressive as this is, there is more. Snow Pond has taken a strong position on the environment, and this has led to its acting on efficiency and reducing carbon emissions. One of its projects is a solar array. John Wiggin, Snow Pond’s Executive Director, commented, “This exciting solar project is designed to replace 100% of Snow Pond’s electrical usage.”
You might see some big implications in that simple statement. Snow Pond’s electricity is all coming from a solar array, and just one of the many things that it is used for is evening concerts at the second biggest amphitheater in North America. This is big!
To build its solar project, Snow Pond turned to Sundog Solar, which is based in Searsport, on Penobscot Bay. Danny Piper, Sundog’s owner, told us a good deal about the solar array and its design.
Clearly, this is not a trivial project. It is a 250-kilowatt AC (kW) system built with bifacial modules made by Vikram, an Indian manufacturer. The project also has four SMA Sunny Tripower Core 1 62.5 kW inverters. It is ground mounted and grid-tied. Snow Pond is able to net-meter its energy so it can run full-time on electricity that it is making or through bill credits on what it has banked earlier.
So far, everything may seem normal, except, possibly, for the system’s size. But as we indicated earlier, while the Snow Dog story is a great success, it is also a cautionary tale about the Maine solar market.
Maine recently began to pull itself out of renewable energy doldrums, but the path it chose seems to have been planned somewhat incompletely. The fact that Snow Dog was able to have Sundog build a nice, big array does not mean that anyone else interested in installing a solar system will be able to duplicate that task.
Maine is largely rural. Its grid substations are mostly not very big. When the opportunities for new solar arrays opened up recently, large companies filled out the available capacity of the substations as quickly as they could. This led to a condition in which even small projects under 25 kW may have a hard time getting approval from utilities for connection to the grid.
Piper told us that in some areas, the applications for connecting new solar systems have gone from a 10% failure rate to 60%. That means a solar system that has been requested by a customer and designed by an installer may be stopped by a utility simply because there is no more capacity available at the substation for development. And that means Sundog and other solar installers often lose money designing systems that do not get approved.
This situation is worsened by the fact that Maine does not have a spot market for electricity. If it did, a customer with a battery could deliver energy to the grid when the demand was high and the supply struggling to meet it. Without some mechanism to address the situation, installers like Sundog have been struggling, not to find customers or financing or siting permits, but just to get approval to connect systems.
People who want to build solar systems should not just lose hope. Sundog is installing plenty of new systems, though Piper believes he could build more. But given the urgency of environmental issues, we should really press states to be more effective in promoting renewable energy. The capacity issues emerging in Maine lessen the options for the state to continue to reach its renewable energy goals without the consideration of socializing the grid infrastructure upgrades needed to reach a higher percentage of solar contribution to the state’s renewable portfolio standards.