Words by Allison Paige | Photos by Lauryn Hottinger
ReVision Energy partners with the Pepperell Mill Campus in Biddeford to create the state’s largest privately owned solar project
Ra, Helios, Sól: The names for the sun god may vary, but they are all monikers for the same thing, our nearest star, that gaseous, glowing, burning ball of light, some 91 million miles from Earth, the energy-giving source of all life. During the long Maine winters, when the sun plays hide-and-seek behind low-hanging snow clouds and the summer feels a distant memory, it may be surprising to know that the state gets approximately 2,500 hours of sunlight per year and is on roughly the same latitude as the Mediterranean. That makes a difference, not just in our weather, or our plans, or even our moods; it is, preeminently, the clean, renewable, source of power that ReVision Energy has been harnessing in earnest since the company’s founding in 2008.
In the fall of 2018, Doug Sanford, the CEO of the Pepperell Mill Campus in Biddeford, realized a long-standing goal when he hired ReVision to build what is its most ambitious privately held project yet, a solar array of nearly 1,200 photovoltaic panels on top of the mill. The array spans 1.3 acres of rooftop and will produce approximately 440,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity annually. This translates to an ample supply for the 100 residential units within the campus.
“It is the equivalent, energy-wise, to driving around the world 55 times,” illustrates Johanna Sorrell, commercial design specialist for ReVision Energy. Or to put it more locally, “from Biddeford to Boston 14,500 times.”
“We’ve always had the urge to be ahead of the curve on energy,” says Scott Joslin, chief operating officer and general manager of the Pepperell Mill. “The idea was always to try a solar project, and the way you do it right is to scale it to be big enough to actually make fiscal sense. It’s close to making fiscal sense, but we say that the offset is worth being green. So, while it might be a little more expensive in the short term, it’s the right thing to do. Once it all gets paid off, we’re capturing the sun’s power for as long as the panels last.”
Sanford continues, “We have a big responsibility to do the right thing, and certainly you’ll always look, from my standpoint, at the economic benefits. But this one—we just had to bite the bullet. We knew the right thing to do was the panels, and our responsibility is to our environment. It’s a little tougher when you don’t have all those incentives that could be easily put in place by a state government, but we couldn’t wait any longer either.”
Bought by Sanford in 2004 and developed since 2008, the Pepperell Mill now hosts 140 businesses and 100 residences, with 50 more on the way this spring. Known by many as the “Mayor” or even the “Pope of Biddeford,” Sanford’s transformation of the former textile mill into a multipurpose campus has been a runaway success and one of the major revitalizing factors of the city’s downtown. “Biddeford had all the tools,” says Sanford. “When I came here, I realized it was only a matter of time.”
Joslin put it into historical context. The mills of the Northeast imported cotton from the South because they had water power. In 1915, with the introduction of electric power, there was no reason for Southern states to send their cotton up north. That was the beginning of the end for all the Northern textile mills.
But while most mills were put out of business, Pepperell Mill, once one of the largest of its kind in New England, remained open due to WestPoint Home and the patenting and production of their wonder product, Vellux, a nonwoven petroleum-based fabric considered the first polar fleece, produced in the mill from 1966 until 2009. So, unlike so many other mills in Maine, Pepperell Mill was in much better shape than its contemporaries, most of which had fallen into disrepair.
“These bones were in great shape when we inherited them,” says Joslin. “These mills were heated, sprinkled, electrified, and the roofs were perfect.”
Says Sanford, “We have never been the ‘new construction’ guys. We’ve always looked at municipalities as the future.” In the eighties, when Sanford came to Biddeford, it looked like what he called “the final frontier,” an urban, blighted coastal town that developers were passing over in favor of larger, wealthier cities. “It had this great infrastructure—any of these successful cities like Portsmouth, Portland, would die for these mills—but they were in Biddeford! When you talked to anybody about their local perception of Biddeford, it was: Put your blinders on and keep driving!”
In the 30 years that Sanford has been in town, all that has changed. Biddeford’s main streets are crackling with new commerce and real estate and Sanford’s role in this renaissance cannot be overstated. On a tour of the mill last summer for the launch of the ReVision project, U.S. Senator Angus King called Biddeford “the most dynamic community in Maine right now.”
Completed in the 1840s, the Pepperell Mill, with its exposed brick walls, plentiful windows, and wide, wooden floors, is a model of authentic industrial chic, the original template of the prevailing aesthetic you find in today’s hip cafes and restaurants—and this, too, makes the building, with its mix of residences, industry, and commerce, feel timeless: antique and yet very much of the moment.
Coming full circle, Joslin notes that textiles are once again being produced there, by Hyperlite Mountain Gear and the sustainable-minded clothing line Angelrox.
Sorrell remarks, “Since Doug and Scott acquired the mill, they really bootstrapped it to become a leader in the community, not only filling it with incredible businesses and creating places for people to live, [but] bringing the mill back to the history of renewable energy is incredibly important, great for not only the bottom line but also as a driver to attract people to the mills.”
To have the mill modernized in this way, making a leap toward renewable energy, is something of which Sanford and Joslin are rightfully proud.
“We preserved it forever,” says Joslin. “It’s not going anywhere.”
Of Sanford and Joslin’s prescience, Sorrell says, “They’re so forward-thinking and they’re—I think the right word is—visionary. They actualize their visions and they get things done.”
Up on the roof, the day is crisp and clear, blue and bright, and the panels are angled and ready to catch some rays. There is a chance to admire the bird’s-eye view of downtown Biddeford and the Saco River, not to mention the vast array itself, all set to work once Central Maine Power throws the switch.
If the current United Nations climate change report has got you gloomy, take a look on the bright side: The progressive minds powering ReVision Energy and the Pepperell Mill are combining energies to make sure there will be plenty more of it—clean, green, renewable solar energy, that is, and that’s something to beam about.