You head up loans and investments for CEI, and have done a great deal of work for CEI on housing, among other things. Along the way you’ve developed an expertise in renewable energy – can you share a bit about how you became interested in renewable energy?
Developing my very first project in 1989 in Alaska, I used something called off-peak supply pricing for electricity in a small efficient 7 unit project. Heating oil was cheap then, but $0.03/KwH electricity was even cheaper. We had an appliance in the units that only connected to the electric grid at night when rates were cheap. Then it would shut off and disseminate heat into the unit all day long. This was my early spark to better understand how energy and the built environment go together. I worked on CEI’s first affordable housing project with renewable energy in 2005 – before the financing requirements to do so, and before the rich incentives that drive the market today. Anytime you can lower operating expenses on a building, the project operates much better. Blossoming all these examples at small scale in a rural state like Maine, takes time but builds momentum to get a statewide conversation going about how to keep those energy dollars in Maine’s economy.
You recently visited Denmark as part of the Climate Change Tour, what were some of the renewable energy takeaways that could be helpful to Maine?
The Danes decided 40+ years ago that they had to get off their dependence on foreign oil. With no natural energy resources to extract from the ground in their country, the government AND the population resolved to find alternatives. With a population of only 5.5 million today, getting a national consensus is easier there than in the US. But its remarkable to see today that renewable energy as a PRIMARY source is ordinary and expected. To maintain that directive, fossil fuel use and driving/owning cars are heavily taxed to provide revenue to the renewable energy installations. The transition to renewables like wind and biomass was driven by economics and good business sense, not through the long path of environmental activism and climate change awareness. The Danes are world leaders in wind turbine technology and employ local ownership in most wind and biomass projects to dissolve the monopolistic dynamics inherent in utilities. We heard repeatedly that “a natural monopoly (like local public utilities) works best when owned by those to which it serves”. The anaerobic digester now under construction at Brunswick Landing will provide 1MW of GREEN electricity to the businesses moving to the campus. The entrepreneur who developed that facility spent many months back and forth over a 2 year period in Denmark learning the technology and the implementation strategies from the Danes who gladly teach this stuff to anyone who wants to come visit. Denmark is truly the world’s University of Renewable Energy.
The 30% solar investment tax credit will be reduced to 10% at the end of this year – do you think that will affect solar projects and developments in Maine?
Currently, the political leadership in Maine does not see the benefits of the rapidly growing renewable energy industry going on. Today, the Maine’s solar vendors are already structuring their business plans to absorb the economics of a lower federal incentive. With PV pricing down so much, the numbers definitely still work with the 10% ITC, but the return on investment takes a bit longer. Transitioning away from fossil fuels will take a long time, investors and consumers must see this as a long game. The purpose of the 30% incentive was to stimulate the sector – it has certainly done that!
CEI just moved into a new office – can you tell us about the renewable energy being used on that building?
During the project development, it was called CEI Central because of the primary goal of bringing most of CEI under one (reflective, solar panel covered and heavily insulated) roof. To demonstrate the mission values of the organization, the decision was made early to avoid fossil fuels. We had numerous inputs and even some pressure to connect to Brunswick’s natural gas infrastructure “just in case”. The idea is still new and somewhat untested that 22,200 square feet of commercial space doesn’t need fossil fuel. The primary source of heat and cooling is the earth. We use three 1200’ deep wells to circulate water back and forth from heat exchangers in the basement. The earth’s temperature provides the heat (and a place to absorb it in summer). Inside some really cool technology of the heat exchangers, this temp difference creates the heating and cooling we need to maintain a comfortable clean-air environment in the offices. We have 202 solar panels on the roof designed to generate better than half the electricity we need annually to run the pumps for the wells.
All the lighting is LED, all plumbing fixtures are low-flow. All materials inside (paint, flooring, surface materials etc.) are ZERO VOC which means they do not contain volatile organic compounds (sorry, none of that “new car” smell). Perhaps the best feature is all the natural light available in every office space. The architect, Ben Walter and his team, did a fantastic job creating a natural light environment without putting us in a glass box.