Members of Belfast Cohousing & Ecovillage, a tight-knit community in Midcoast Maine, are experienced in working together. When a child is born or an illness strikes, members lend a hand and provide home-cooked meals. Sharing cars, child care and even house-swapping when life circumstances change are all common occurrences in this community, which values sustainability and multi-generational living. The recent 11-home community solar purchase was a perfect fit with the ecovillage culture.
All of the photovoltaic solar systems use Axitec 250-watt photovoltaic modules with Enphase microinverters, allowing members to receive wholesale rates on the purchase of the panels and components. They were drop-shipped, and onsite construction equipment for the common house and unfinished units helped transport the panels to each home. Customized rooftop safety equipment was reused, saving time and money.
"I think a community solar purchase was a great idea," says Hans Hellstrom, a member of Belfast Ecovillage and a participant in the recent solar project. "Not only is it good for keeping the cost down, but there was also a feeling of comradery. It also really supports [the Belfast Ecovillage] mission, working towards sustainability."
The 11 solar systems were installed by Capital City Renewables and two members of Belfast Ecovillage who were trained by the installation crew. The systems ranged in size between 2 and 5 kilowatts of capacity. Despite the Ecovillage homes being all electric (heat, hot water, cooking, etc), these homes are now near net zero.
"Because the homes are highly energy efficient and all electric, the community has the opportunity to generate all their own power and be truly net-zero," explains Kiril Lozanov, the Belfast Ecovillage member who organized the community solar purchase and vice president of Capital City Renewables. "One big advantage to electricity over other sources of energy is the ability to control its source."
All Belfast Ecovillage homes are built by GO Logic to the Passive House standard, although not certified. The high-performance homes use 90 percent less energy for space heating than a typical house. They contain SIPs (structural insulated panels) covered with blow-in cellulose in the walls; triple-pane windows and doors; a solar orientation; a Zehnder heat recovery ventilation system; and a high-efficiency roof.
Now, 22 of the 36 ecovillage homes have solar systems. Of these, 11 systems were installed previously and two of the 36 homes are currently unsold. At least two of these solar homes are net-zero -- a 1,500-square-foot home with a 4.5-kilowatt solar system and a 1,300-square-foot home with a 4.3 kW system. This means the solar systems generate as much energy as the homes use over the course of the year for heat, hot water, cooking, lighting and plug loads.
The layout of Belfast Ecovillage also encourages sustainability and energy conservation. Homes are clustered on 6 acres to preserve open space for wildlife, agriculture and recreation, and a pedestrian path (not a road) connects the homes. Despite the rural location, all homes are in two-, three- and four-unit dwellings.
An approximately 4,900-square-foot common house is under construction and will contain a shared kitchen, dining room, living room, guest bedroom, children's playroom and root cellar. Once complete, optional shared meals will be prepared weekly. By design, Belfast Ecovillage homes are smaller because all residents have access to this shared space, although all homes are complete, independent units with private bathrooms and kitchens.
"Residents of Belfast Ecovillage already share and barter many things, and we even collectively operate a 3-acre worker-share farm through our collective efforts," says Lozanov. "A community solar purchase was natural fit for us, because we often use community-minded thinking to save money, make life easier, or lessen our environmental impact."
Image credits: Sarah Lozanova and Steve Chiasson
Sarah Lozanova is a regular contributor to environmental and energy publications and websites, including Mother Earth Living, Green Building & Design, Triple Pundit, Urban Farm, and Solar Today. Her experience includes work with small-scale solar energy installations and utility-scale wind farms. She earned an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School and she resides in Belfast Cohousing & Ecovillage in Mid-coast Maine with her husband and two children.
Sarah Lozanova is an environmental journalist and copywriter and has worked as a consultant to help large corporations become more sustainable. She is the author of Humane Home: Easy Steps for Sustainable & Green Living, and her renewable energy experience includes residential and commercial solar energy installations. She teaches green business classes to graduate students at Unity College and holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School.