State grants help local towns, businesses harness energy

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AUGUSTA — Installation of solar hot water heaters and the conversion of landfill gas to electricity are among the projects funded by nearly $635,000 in grants awarded last week by Efficiency Maine, the conservation arm of the Public Utilities Commission.

More than $220,000 worth of grants were awarded to businesses and municipalities in Portland, South Portland, Scarborough, Freeport, Brunswick and Bath.

The city of Bath and Portland-based ecomaine received funding to study converting landfill gas into electricity.

Waste-to-energy provider ecomaine received $50,000 to begin a feasibility study, estimated to cost $120,00, about converting methane gas produced by old landfills into electricity.

Kevin Roche, ecomaine’s executive director, said the effort would concentrate on 1 million tons of landfill created prior to 1988 when the organization fired up its waste-to-energy plant, which generates $6 million a year.

Roche said ecomaine currently captures gas from the old landfills and burns it off, but the group would like to investigate whether it makes sense to produce electricity for nearby businesses on Blueberry Road, like Maine Medical Center, which has laundry and storage facilities in the area.

“It would have to have a good return not only for ecomaine, but a partner who would use the electricity,” he said.

Bath received $32,000 to complete the second-phase study of a landfill gas-to-energy project.

Lee Liner, assistant director of Bath Public Works, said the Phase II study is expected to nail down the costs and benefits so the city manager and City Council can begin to have a meaningful discussion about the project.

“It could be a benefit to the city in the two senses of the word ‘green’: both environmentally and economically,” Liner said.

Without the grant, Liner said the study would have likely been tabled indefinitely. “Funding became an issue,” he said.

Bath would provide $34,000 in local funds to complete the study, he said.

The town of Scarborough received a $33,000 grant that will allow significant energy upgrades to Dunstan Fire Station, according to Town Manager Tom Hall, who said the town would have to provide a $33,000 local match.

Instead of simply changing light ballasts, Hall said the town will now be able to install infrared heaters and programmable thermostats in the garage bays.

“We had planned on do these projects,” Hall said. “But this will allow us to do quite a bit more.”

Meanwhile, businesses large and small received money to install solar hot water heaters, including a $21,000 grant for Gritty McDuff’s in Freeport and $9,200 grant for Scratch Baking Co. in South Portland.

Jonathan Soule, owner of Gritty McDuff’s on Route 1 in Freeport, said he expects solar panels to be installed this summer will pay for themselves in a year or two.

“We use a lot of water at the brewery,” Soule said. “Using alternative energy was the direction we wanted to go, but this grant made it a possibility.”

The total cost of the project is nearly $42,000. Gritty’s will contribute $21,000 and the grant will cover the other half.

Soule said the brewery was originally a solar greenhouse, so it’s position is perfect for the project.

“It doesn’t make any sense not to do this,” he said. “It feels good to know that Gritty’s is going green.”

In South Portland, Bob Johnson, owner of Scratch Baking at Willard Square, said he hopes to have his solar panels installed on his building by June along with an in-store display that shows real-time readings from the system.

“We’ve been trying to do this solar thing for 2 1/2 years,” Johnson said. “We use a lot of hot water. The payback will be pretty quick for us.”

Johnson said seeing the solar project come to fruition has him thinking about installing a residential windmill on top of his building.

“It’s just the right thing to do,” he said. “It’s just the way we see the world.”

Other local groups to receive grants for solar hot water systems include: $50,000 for Bowdoin College in Brunswick, $11,500 for L.L. Bean in Freeport and $15,000 for Maine Pines Racquet & Fitness in Brunswick.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or