BY RAMONA DU HOUX
March 26, 2013
ReVison Energy installed solar car battery chargers like this one at their headquarters in Portland. Photo by Ramona du Houx
In just one hour the sun delivers enough solar energy to supply all global energy for an entire year. The infinite potential of this resource is helping a Maine-based solar company grow as it works to solve some of the state’s fossil fuel and emissions problems.
“All the solar energy that strikes the earth every year is a staggering amount to harvest,” said Phil Coupe, co-founder and managing partner of ReVision Energy.
ReVision Energy, has installed more than 3,500 solar hot water and solar electric systems in Maine and New Hampshire over the past 10 years. Coupe said their mission is to help Mainers reduce fossil fuel consumption and the associated emissions by transitioning to clean, renewable energy sources.
Maine happens to be one of the sunniest states in New England. On an annual basis the state gets 33 percent more sunshine than Germany, the world leader in solar energy adoption with more than 1 million systems installed over the past 20 years.
ReVision worker installing solar panels.
“It’s hard to believe but Maine is at the same latitude as sunny places like Spain and the French Riviera,” said Coupe. “We have a powerful local resource that enables solar energy systems to deliver a strong economic and environmental return on investment.”
The company started out as “Energyworks LLC” in Liberty in 2003 and by 2006 a branch of the business was launched in Portland. In 2008 the two separate businesses merged to create ReVision Energy. In 2010 a branch of ReVison opened in Exeter, New Hampshire.
National data shows the solar energy industry expanded by 67 percent in 2010. The sprint in growth could be attributed to a global price war amongst solar-electric panel manufactures, which resulted in a 50 percent drop in panel prices over the last three years.
“Solar power is becoming more and more mainstream every day. Our business used to be 30 percent solar electric installations and 70 percent solar hot water installations. Now it’s flipped,” said Coupe.
Photovoltaic cells are made of silicon-based semiconductor material similar to the raw material of computer chips. When sunlight hits the cells, it knocks electrons loose from the material, creating a flow or ‘current’ of electricity, which can then be used to power any electronic device.
ReVision installation on EcoVillage’s showcase GO Logic passive solar home.
Solar technology and building techniques have progressed to the point where “net zero” homes are being built in Maine—homes designed to use zero fossil fuel, relying on just solar hot water and solar electricity to meet all energy needs. ReVision Energy installed the solar panels on the G•O Logic prototype net-zero home in Belfast. The company also installed 44 solar panels on two roofs of Reversing Falls Lobster Company, making it the first wharf in Maine to use grid-tied solar energy. Thomas College in Waterville has the largest solar array in the state ever since ReVision installed 764 panels atop Alfond Arena.
While solar energy is ReVision’s primary focus, Coupe points out that Maine is going to need a variety of renewable ‘silver buckshot’ rather than a single renewable ‘bullet’ to solve the state’s long-term energy problems. “Maine is rich in a number of renewable resources. We have the most heavily forested state in the nation, we have some of the best tidal energy potential and our offshore waters have been described as the Saudi Arabia of wind.”
How would a homeowner make an informed decision to choose a solar panel installation over a backyard wind turbine?
“Photovoltaic technology has been around for 70-plus years. It is highly evolved, robust, reliable and performs well in harsh northern climates—like we have in Maine,” said Coupe. “A solar electric system has zero moving parts. You can put an array on the roof, wire it into your electric panel, and then you can virtually forget about it.” Today’s solar panels come with a 25-year warranty and expected useful lifespan of over 35 years.
In the early days of the Portland shop, Coupe and his partners tried wind power. Through that experience they learned about the challenges of small wind turbine installations.
“In 2006 residential-scale wind turbine technology left a lot to be desired” said Coupe. “We had problems with the turbine heads failing and the inverters not working properly, not to mention that it’s really challenging to work on something that is 30 feet in the air.”
ReVison still supports wind power, as Coupe said that it has a vital place in the transition for Maine to become fossil-fuel independent.
To that end, ReVision Heat was formed out of ReVision Energy’s solid-fuels division in 2008 and specializes in high-efficiency pellet boilers, wood gasification boilers and natural gas conversions of oil-fired heating systems, although the company is hoping to move away from natural gas in favor of pellet boiler systems. The two separate companies have a common mission in reducing Maine and New Hampshire’s dependence on fossil-fuel energy and the associated emissions, utilizing state-of-the-art solar and biomass technologies.
“It’s at our own peril that we fail to be a leader in renewable energy,” said Coupe. “The last time I checked, there wasn’t a drop of fossil fuel under our soil in Maine, but we are rich in renewable energy resources.”
According to the U.S. Census, 75.61 percent of Maine’s homes use No. 2 heating oil—the highest proportion of heating oil dependency of any state.
“Maine and New Hampshire are the two most oil-dependent states in New England on a per capita basis. And they have the highest per capita CO2 emissions,” said Coupe. “Maine has more than 430,000 homes heated with oil and New Hampshire has another 350,000 on oil. More than 10 percent of these homes could be converted to modern, efficient pellet boilers without over-harvesting the forest resource.”
In 2003 Maine burned 838 million gallons of oil. Then as part of Maine’s Energy Action Plan, the state set a goal in 2004 of cutting Maine’s overall oil use in half by 2050. The total amount of heating oil burned in Maine was cut to about 189 million gallons from 2004 to 2010—by more than half. These latest statistics show those stepped-up efforts to weatherize homes, install efficient oil burners, and switch to other fuels like biomass and wood pellets, set in motion by the Baldacci administration, are taking hold.
“I’m encouraged and inspired by the fact that Maine has significantly reduced its oil consumption over the last five years. As a state, the needle is moving in the right direction, which gives us confidence,” said Coupe.
But according to the EIA’s Home Heating Oil Report for 2010, 78 percent of every dollar spent on heating oil still leaves the Maine economy. That means in 2010, $720,000,000 left the state because of heating oil expenditures, money that could have been spent in Maine’s economy if a sustainable local energy source had been used instead of oil.
Part of the solution Coupe says is to use fuel from Maine’s forests and from energy crops grown on fallow land. Maine is the most forested state in the United States and sustainably harvests more than 16 million tons per year of wood from its forests.
“Maine is 90 percent forested—that’s a tremendous biomass resource. In forestry management, there is a sustainable harvest ratio: for each acre of forest you can extract about a cord of wood each year. Whether you burn the cord or let it decompose on the forest floor, the rest of the trees in the stand will digest the CO2 from that cord that went away. Then those trees will generate another cord for harvest the following year. You can have a low carbon cycle if you harvest responsibly,” said Coupe. “We need to expand pellet use and wood gasification and transfer to more pellet boilers.”
The residential wood-pellet-fueled boiler is different from pellet stoves. They are fully automatic, web-enabled and comparable to any modern home heating system in terms of convenience and reliability. Pellet fuel is also much cheaper than heating oil and propane.
“The nice thing about modern pellet-boiler technology is you can put in a fully automated system that replicates the exact same convenience as your oil boiler, but you have 90 percent less CO2 emissions than an oil boiler,” said Coupe.
According to William Strauss, PhD, of FutureMetrics, the net effect of converting 75 percent of homes that use heating oil to modern European style pellet boilers would be to create or sustain 79,000 jobs in Maine.
Coupe would like to see America take more of a lead in capturing solar energy, like Germany. The German government has subsidized renewable energy through a variety of measures. Perhaps most crucially, the country’s “feed-in tariff” law allows people to install solar panels on their rooftops and sell the power to the grid at favorable rates. Germany’s requirement that utilities have to pay the homeowner for feeding clean energy into the grid has helped the country reach a milestone of producing more than 20.5 percent of their energy from renewable sources in 2011. The country’s share of electricity produced from renewable energy has increased from 6.3 percent of the national total in 2000 to about 25 percent in the first half of 2012.
Germany weathered the recession better than many other European nations, in part because of their focus on producing renewable energy. Their green-energy economy spurred manufacturing growth and created jobs.
“In Germany almost every house has a solar array,” said Coupe. “Germany’s heavy investments in renewables have helped their economy, in manufacturing and installation. They are employing hundreds of thousands of people with their renewable energy initiatives. I think that’s instructive for the U.S.”
In 2010 investments totaling 26 billion euros were made in Germany’s renewable energies sector, employing 370,000 people, especially in small and medium-size companies. At the end of 2012, Germany had installed about 30 gigawatts of solar capacity, providing between three and ten percent of its electricity. The United States, by contrast, has somewhere around 6.4 gigawatts of solar capacity.
“They are 20 years ahead of us, which is a disappointment but also an opportunity for us to accelerate our transfer from fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy,” said Coupe.
And Germany’s solar resource is on par with Alaska.
“Maine is sitting on a valuable solar resource,” said Coupe. “On an annual basis, we have more days of sunshine than places like South Carolina. We’re not that far off from the Florida Keys.”
Is solar affordable?
“It’s really a safe, secure investment that adds value to your property and delivers an average 6 percent annual rate of return,” said Coupe. “A CD has less than 2 percent return; the stock market is like a casino atmosphere. Compared to other investments, solar energy actually represents one of the most reliable investment opportunities on the market today. With solar you’ll get 100 percent of the money you invested back, and you own the asset.”
Tax incentives help with the cost of the initial investment. The federal tax credit for solar installations is 30 percent off a taxpayer’s bill. Under Governor John Baldacci, a law was passed for solar installation rebates and today Mainers can get up to $2,000 for a residential solar energy system and up to $4,000 for a commercial project. Funding for the rebate program is currently expected to run out in summer 2013 and it is not evident that the LePage administration is in favor of finding new funding.
“We are hopeful that the new Legislature might be able to work with Efficiency Maine to find a new source of funding,” said Coupe. “A solar hot water system that’s installed in a home with a oil boiler will typically deliver a simple payback of five to six years at today’s oil prices, meaning the fuel savings from the solar hot water system results in getting your investment back. Solar electricity is a nine- to ten-year return at today’s rates.”
ReVision Energy offers free solar evaluations for homes and businesses, resulting in a complete system design and project quote. They also have calculators on their website for preliminary assessments to help homeowners gauge the benefits they might derive from a solar investment.
Coupe’s knowledge about energy sources and resources is encyclopedic and stems from his passion to do his part to put a stop to climate change, one installation at a time. His commitment is infectious and shared by his partners and employees. ReVision Energy’s mission drives the company and makes for an exciting business model.
“For us it’s key. We all want to do excellent work—the mission seems to give our employees a deeper buy-in when they do the work. They are true professionals and passionate about it, so I don’t worry about the quality of our workmanship in the field. I know they are going to do it right,” said Coupe.
ReVision believes in helping communities and nonprofits. They donate to nonprofits, provide free labor to install renewable-energy solar systems and give to Toys for Tots, amongst other philanthropic efforts.
“Eight years ago I started a nonprofit, Smart Energy Now, to create community solar-panel school projects, which would educate the children, lower energy costs, and create a rallying point for understanding renewables,” said Coupe.
Soon after, he got together with his partners and started a solar installation company. The three other co-founders are Bill Behrens, who has a PhD in environmental economics and a BS in electrical engineering from MIT and more than 20 years’ experience in renewable energy, Fortunat Mueller, who has a masters degree in mechanical engineering from Brown University and Pat Coon, who is a master electrician and long-time clean energy advocate.
The partners have spent time studying solar energy system design and installation techniques in western Europe, where the climate is similar to Maine’s.
“In Austria and other parts of Europe they are about 20 years ahead of us in renewable energy adoption. We have benefited from integrating some of their best practices and designs in our approach,” said Coupe. “We have the most robust, reliable systems you can buy in North America.”
ReVison has installed solar panels on a number of schools and non-profits with a creative, alternative financing program called a Power Purchase Agreement.
“We realized non-profits have budget challenges and can’t take advantage of the federal tax incentives, worth 30 percent, because they don’t pay taxes. So we formed ReVison Investments,” said Coupe. “We put up the capital for the equipment and installation, so there are zero upfront costs to the school. Then we sell the electricity to the school at a discounted rate from the normal electricity bill. They get clean solar energy for a system they don’t have to own.” The host institutions then have the option the buy the systems outright at a discount.
Out front of ReVision’s showroom is a solar electric vehicle charging station, which ReVison installs. According to Coupe, there are about fifteen to twenty charging stations around Maine, mostly at car dealerships. “The demand for quotes and installation is increasing,” said Coupe.
The savings made from an electric vehicle are staggering.
“When you use electricity to charge your hybrid vehicle, your cost equivalent is roughly 50 cents a gallon,” said Coupe. “While electric vehicles may be in their infancy today just 10 or 15 years ago when the Toyota Prius hybrid was a rare sight, yet today the vehicle is ubiquitous. EV’s will be just a prevalent as the Prius is today because the technology works,” said Coupe, who has been driving a Chevy Volt for the past eight months.
GM based its battery design on the fact that 80 percent of Americans have a commute of 20 miles or less.
“The Chevy Volt is intelligently designed with a 40-mile battery range. The car can get you to work and even if you can’t charge up at work, you can still get home without needing gas,” said Coupe.
For longer trips, the Volt has a small gas-powered generator that will extend its range by 300 miles. Transferring to electric vehicles is important to ReVision’s mission.
“Maine has the highest per capita CO2 emissions in New England, and 50 percent of the emissions come from transportation,” concluded Coupe. “It’s all about the transition from a fossil-fuel economy to a sustainable, renewable-energy economy.”