There are many reasons solar energy is on the rise in Maine, but one of the biggest is ReVision Energy.
By Virginia M. Wright
Photographed by Brian Fitzgerald
[I]t’s a brilliant fall day on the Boothbay Peninsula, and that’s reason enough to smile. Since August, however, days like these lift Lynne and Chris Gilbert’s spirits a little bit higher. The Gilberts and I are standing in an Edgecomb field, admiring the source of their elation: two solar arrays, one on the ground, the other on the roof of a handsome old barn, are harvesting the sun’s energy, reducing the Gilberts’ carbon footprint — and their electric bill.
“Oh, boy, are they!” Lynne exclaims. “We are getting all of our electricity for the basic service charge. We’ll probably get some higher bills over the next few months, but next summer, we’ll bank a lot of credits toward next winter.”
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But this is not the Gilberts’ field, and that is not their barn. They live 15 miles away in a heat-pump-equipped house that is not well positioned for solar panels. So they, along with eight other Lincoln County households, purchased a share in this new grid-tied solar farm on David Nutt and Judy Sandick’s property. It is the second community solar farm in Maine, and several more are in the works, all with the same company’s name behind them: ReVision Energy.
ReVision Energy’s name, in fact, seems to be behind just about every solar project of note in Maine these days: Fire stations in Belfast, Windham, and Manchester. Libraries in Lincolnville and Freeport. Public schools in more than a dozen towns. Municipal buildings. Public libraries. Churches. College campuses. Not to mention scores and scores of homes, businesses, and nonprofits. The solar design and installation company, with offices in Liberty and Portland, as well as two branches in New Hampshire, has completed more than 4,500 solar energy projects since it was founded as Energyworks in 2003.
“Twelve years ago, we were just two guys in a garage in Liberty,” says Phil Coupe, a managing partner with Bill Behrens and Fortunat Mueller. “Now we have 105 employees in four locations.”
That growth has occurred in defiance of both a recession and a state government that is hostile to solar projects. Last year, Maine Governor Paul LePage vetoed a bipartisan bill to restore an expired $2,000 rebate program for homeowners and businesses who install solar electric and hot water systems, calling it “bad energy policy” and making Maine the only New England state that doesn’t offer a financial incentive for solar investment. “When that first happened, we thought that might be the end of the solar industry in Maine,” Coupe says. “We’ve been really excited by the fact that the opposite is true. We’re growing pretty well in Maine despite the lack of incentives. That said, our two locations in New Hampshire [which offers rebates of $3,000–$4,500 on solar electric systems] are growing twice as fast as our two locations in Maine.”
ReVision’s success can be chalked up in part to a dramatic decline in the price of solar panels (thanks to mass production in China), but Bill Behrens contends a major cultural shift also is afoot. “There’s a social change going on that is as radical as the change from horse power to petroleum power, and we’re just in the early days of it,” believes Behrens, who spoke with me at ReVision’s office and warehouse in Liberty. “In the beginning, cars were something to be afraid of. They were scary. Solar is scary to people who are used to taking their power off the utility grid. Horses were great; cars are better. Coal-based electricity is great; solar-based electricity is better. Adoption of any major change takes place in a wave process: It’s very slow in the beginning, then it starts ramping up, and it gets to a point where, instead of most of the people saying, ‘This is crazy,’ most of the people are saying, ‘This is phenomenal.’ Then, finally, it is dominant. We’ll be there in about 20 years, maybe. The world is going to catch on. Our mission is to help the world catch on faster and faster.”
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That mission distinguishes ReVision among mechanical contracting firms: its business may be nuts and bolts, but its identity is built on a commitment to making a positive impact on the environment and the community. The company’s values, which are peppered throughout its website, have helped create a work culture in which employees are not only united around an altruistic principle (using business as a force for good), but also well rewarded for it (401K plan with company match, health insurance, paid holidays, and paid time off for volunteer work). In July, ReVision Energy attained B Corp certification, a designation offered by the nonprofit B Lab to businesses that meet “rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency.”
ReVision’s roots go back to the early ’90s, when Behrens co-founded The Green Store in Belfast, a general store specializing in products for people pursuing an eco-centric lifestyle.
“We wanted to bring solar to the retail environment,” says Behrens, who was educated in electrical engineering and environmental economics at MIT and taught briefly at Dartmouth before entering the construction field in Maine. “Before long, people were asking us to do solar projects for them. We did them, but it wasn’t easy for a retail business to do.” So, in 2003, Behrens split off from The Green Store to form Energyworks in Liberty.
Around the same time Behrens was launching The Green Store, Phil Coupe was a newly minted college graduate launching a journalism career in Washington, DC. He interviewed the founder of a rapidly growing startup bottled-water company and was so impressed that he went to work for him, eventually becoming the company’s director of corporate philanthropy. Coupe later returned to his native Maine to work for Tom Chappell’s Saltwater Institute, which teaches values-based business practices, and in 2006, he started Energyworks’ Portland branch with Fortunat Mueller, a former project systems engineer for a Connecticut fuel cells company. Two years later, Energyworks was renamed ReVision Energy.
Like Behrens, Coupe exudes a visionary zeal for the company’s mission. He proudly shows off the Portland office, which he calls “our de-carbonization facility”: It is heated with air-source heat pumps powered by solar electricity. A pellet boiler provides backup. Out front, two Nissan Leaf electric cars, which are used by employees for site visits, are plugged into charging stations. The installation trucks run on biodiesel.
“We’re trying to be the change we want to see in the world. We’re trying to walk the talk,” Coupe says. “Maine has the highest per capita carbon pollution, or greenhouse gas emissions, in New England. Part of that is we have 400,000 homes and buildings heated with oil. Fifty percent of our carbon emissions come from transportation because we have great distances between our communities and we don’t have public transportation. That’s why you see us doing things like using solar electricity to power electric vehicles. It’s a powerful way to not only eliminate carbon emissions completely, but also give Mainers a really strong economic return on their investment. That Nissan Leaf all-electric costs us 4 cents a mile to operate. A similar size gas-powered car costs 15 cents a mile.”
Coupe is a member of the state’s first community solar farm, a 51kW grid-tied solar electric array atop a chicken barn in South Paris. Like Lynne and Chris Gilbert’s house, his home in Cape Elizabeth is not suitable for solar panels. That’s a common scenario in Maine, the most heavily forested state in the country, he says, and it’s why interest in community solar projects, made possible by a change in Maine Public Utilities Commission rules, is on the rise. Maine allows up to nine households to buy shares in a solar project. They then receive credits on their electric bills for the energy the project feeds into the electric grid.
Another obvious area for future growth is nonprofit and municipal projects, where ReVision already dominates, thanks to its pioneering approach to providing solar installations to entities that cannot take advantage of the federal renewable energy tax credit (a taxpayer may claim a credit of 30 percent of qualified expenditures for a system). ReVision finances the project, charging the owner for the electricity for eight years. After that, the organization can buy the project at 30 percent of original cost.
The next year may, in fact, be among the busiest ever for ReVision Energy. That federal tax credit is set to expire on December 31, 2016, and homeowners and businesses are already lining up to take advantage of it before it disappears.