PORTLAND, Maine — The first thing that catches your eye from the roof of Portland’s largest bowling alley is the taco-spewing Airstream trailer. This bit of retro chic is compelling, but even more significant is the vast solar array blanketing the hottest place to hang out in Portland this summer.
“People are blown away. When you walk out, all you see is solar. You are walking in solar,” said Justin Alfond, co-owner of the Bayside Bowl, which recently underwent a multimillion-dollar expansion in Portland’s burgeoning Bayside neighborhood.
While setting the bar high for bowling — the emporium has 20 lanes and four bars — the roof above the expansion created an opportunity for the enlightened owners to reduce their carbon footprint, save on electricity and funnel power back to the grid.
“The reduction in our energy bill is about $400 per month,” said Alfond, who along with partner Charlie Mitchell made an investment in solar because “it’s good business and good for the planet.”
Pin setters below are powered by the sun, as are LED lights and arcade games. Generating enough power to cover 35 percent of Bayside Bowl’s energy needs, it is the second largest solar system in Portland. (The first is the Fore Street garage, which powers the Hyatt Place Portland Old Port hotel.)
Though most people sipping beers on the rooftop are talking about the panoramic views of Portland, not renewable resources, “this is changing hearts and minds,” Alfond, a former state senator from Portland, said. “The more you are around it, you ask more questions.”
By mounting 422 solar panels steps from the alfresco bar, taco truck and fire pit, the entertainment emporium is a visible sign of what is possible.
“It’s great for business, the environment and great for our future. Great talking point,” Alfond said. “It was awesome putting this together. There were a lot of moving parts.”
Despite Maine’s abundant sunny days, the state lags in solar innovation and job growth. Roadblocks from the government keep getting in the way, according to Alfond, who is contemplating running for governor when Gov. Paul LePage terms out.
“It’s the right thing to do financially. It’s the right thing to do, period,” Alfond said, adding that the state doesn’t make it easy to go green.
Lawmakers approved a solar policy compromise Wednesday that modifies a recent rule change proposed by the Maine Public Utilities Commission.
The rule was criticized for being unfair, cumbersome and expensive to implement, according to Josh Baston, a project manager at ReVision Energy, who helped install the Bayside Bowl’s system, because it would have allowed the utility to charge customers for solar energy that they consumed in real time, something solar supporters have called an “anti-solar tax.”
“The legislation isn’t perfect, but it does roll back the very worst parts of the PUC rule and gives solar customers and companies some level of predictability and certainty to make investments, which is a good thing,” Baston said.
Those in the solar industry in Maine, like Baston, say systems like the Bayside Bowl’s go a long way spreading the gospel of solar.
“You see it and it becomes more commonplace, not a fringe idea that doesn’t exist,” Baston said, adding that the cost of solar equipment has gone down dramatically in the past five years.
“It’s a wonderful asset we have, called the sun,” Alfond said. “Let’s use it.”