Signs in support of Hope switching to solar power. Credit: Courtesy of Chris Pinchbeck

HOPE, Maine — Once known for its retired circus elephants and the man who took care of them, this town fell on dark times five years ago when the caretaker was trampled to death and the elephants moved away.

But for the past year and a half, a push to bring a municipal solar power project to Hope has reignited the “positive vibes” among residents, according to Hope resident and former selectboard member Chris Pinchbeck.

“We’ve just been trying to get out of the doldrums, and this [solar] project was the catalyst for that. It’s great to see that the wheels are turning — and continue to turn — and to see citizens wanting to get involved with this good vibe that is happening again,” Pinchbeck said.

Last month, the work culminated in the switch being flipped on a 120-panel solar array that will provide power for the town office, two fire stations and the town-owned salt shed.

The installation of the solar array makes Hope one of a growing number of Maine towns, including neighboring Camden, that is trying to fulfill its power needs though renewable energy.

“We’ve really seen solar starting to pick up across the state,” according to Sophie Janeway of the Natural Resources Council of Maine. “There has been an incredible amount of interest from towns. The more town officials start to learn about the benefits of solar projects, the more interested they are becoming.”

Pinchbeck said Hope dabbled with the idea of solar power several years ago when he was on the selectboard. But the discussion never went anywhere.

By 2018, he was still expressing his frustrations on the subject to his family around the dinner table. His children, Cameron, 12, and Elsie, 10, were tired of hearing him complain.

“My kids got tired of me going on and on about it and said, ’Dad, you have to do something about it,’” Pinchbeck said. “I didn’t have the energy to carry forward with it and they said, ‘We will.’”

During the summer of 2018, Cameron and Elsie collected nearly 100 signatures from Hope residents to urge the selectboard to convert to solar power. When the signatures were presented to the selectboard, they formed a solar committee to look into the idea.

The committee, which Pinchbeck joined, determined that switching to solar power would save the town about $600,000 over the 30-year lifespan of the array. It’s not a groundbreaking number, Pinchbeck admits, but they proved it would be more fiscally responsible for the town to switch to solar.

To capture more benefits from having solar power, the committee also recommended that heat pumps be installed in municipal buildings so the solar power was taking care of both the heat and electricity bills.

The cost savings was what the committee tried to stress the most to the selectboard. But the environmental benefits of a renewable energy project was undoubtedly motivating for those involved.

“I have my kids. I’m looking into their future, and they’re looking up at me and saying, ‘Dad why isn’t your generation doing anything,’” Pinchbeck said. “[The project] was driven by that really long-term scope of ‘What can we do to make changes in our community and our broader environment?’”

As the town considered incorporating solar power into its energy consumption portfolio, residents in support of the switch turned out. Bright, hand-painted signs popped up around town with slogans such as “Solar for Hope,” Pinchbeck said.

At a town meeting in March 2019, 165 residents voted in favor of moving forward with the solar project. Only 16 voted against it. Pinchbeck said this meeting garnered the largest turnout for a municipal meeting in recent memory.

Since municipalities cannot take advantage of federal tax credits provided to organizations using solar, the array is owned by a private organization, Hope Solar LLC, which the town purchases power from at a lower cost than it would from a traditional electric company.

In five years, Pinchbeck said the town will be able to buy the array from Hope Solar at a discounted price.

While the solar power project has come to an end, the discussions around the Pinchbeck’s kitchen table have not. His children are still looking at other ways Hope can look to the future.

They’re not alone. A spinoff group has formed out of the solar committee that continues to look at ways Hope can better the environment.

“[This process] proved to me that some of this change needs to happen through a grassroots effort,” Pinchbeck said. “It has to be neighbors getting together for a cause that is bigger than themselves to say, ‘Yes, we want to do this.’”