A novel way to bring down electric bills and take advantage of renewable energy is available to area residents who can’t take advantage of solar energy on their own properties.
The partial clearing of two parcels of land at 285 and 295 Ayer Road in Harvard, located behind Harvard Plaza, will pave the way for the community’s first solar gardens.
“We’ll be starting to clear the land in the coming weeks, leveling it and, if we have a mild winter, we could start installing solar panels through the winter, but most likely the actual panels will go up in the spring,” said Worth Robbins, a Harvard resident and project coordinator for Harvard Solar Garden, LLC.
The leasing of the land and the imminent installation of 493 kilowatts of photovoltaic panels has been over a year in the making.
“I first thought about community solar when Solarize Harvard was underway in 2011,” said Robbins. “My property was heavily shaded by trees, and I thought there must be a way for residents who don’t have the option of solar on their own properties to come together and be part of this.”
Laying the groundwork
The creation of the Harvard Solar Garden has been no small feat.
“In the beginning, there were tax breaks and incentives for individual residents to put solar panels on their own property through the Solarize Harvard program, but there were no programs in place for those of us interested in community solar,” said Robbins.
The group credits the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center (MassCEC) with accommodating their efforts to create a collective solar solution.
“We incorporated to take advantage of the tax credits,” said Robbins. “Despite this, we operate more like a co-op than a business because we aren’t seeking to generate profits.”
Once incorporated, the group purchased solar panels to meet a Dec. 31, 2011 deadline for a federal grant, but faced new hurdles when they were denied a permit in Harvard’s agricultural/residential zone. After deciding to lease land in a commercial zone, the group ran into another problem due to zoning laws that specified that any solar panels must generate electricity to on-site buildings.
To clear a path for a community solar garden, the town of Harvard voted to expand the solar overlay district, adding the two Ayer Road properties previously denied a permit.
State Sen. Jamie Eldridge (D-Acton) and State Rep. Jen Benson (D-Lunenburg) helped expedite the process, and warrant articles enabling the solar garden were approved by State Attorney General Martha Coakley.
Under the revised zoning, solar panels are restricted to 150 feet or more from adjacent roads and are to be substantially masked from view. The group says the solar arrays will be out of sight from the road and existing buildings because of vegetation and a sloping terrain.
“Currently, Garden 1 is filled, and we’re now taking requests for entry into Garden 2,” said Robbins. “It’s hard to say exactly how quickly it will fill up. We’re offering space to residents and businesses around the area.”
Shareholders can invest in the Harvard Solar Garden for about $3.85 per watt after applying state and federal incentives.
“The savings from incentives are given to shareholder upfront, so they don’t have to wait for tax refunds,” said Robbins, who says the minimum share in Garden 2 will be 5 kilowatts (kW), at a cost of approximately $17,675.
“We have a 25-year lease, and we estimate – taking into account various tax breaks and credits – that shareholders will have a return of a 5kW investment in about 10 years, more or less, depending on what happens with energy credits and electricity rates,” he said.
“After that the solar energy produced is essentially free.”
Taking part in a solar garden is akin to reserving a plot at a community garden, with solar ‘gardeners’ profiting from their own portion of the development.
“With net metering, one meter for the entire garden turns backwards as the sun shines,” said Robbins. “That electricity is sent to the grid and the power company then credits the accounts of individual shareholders based on the portion of the garden they have invested in.”
Harvard Solar Garden shareholders will also receive income from Solar Renewable Energy Credits (SRECs), which utilities buy to meet state requirements for renewable energy.
“The value of SRECs has fluctuated, so we’ve been conservative in estimating their future price so that we can give shareholders an idea of what to realistically expect,” noted Robbins.
“I wanted to take part in the Harvard Solar Gardens because I have grandchildren,” said Bolton resident Alice Rennie. “I’m happy about saving money on electric bills, but I’m doing this because I believe energy extraction approaches like the coal mining practice of mountaintop removal are so harmful to the environment. I want to do my part to promote renewable energy like solar.”
Rennie, who signed up early, said the process has been easy.
“The people running the Harvard Solar Garden are very knowledgeable,” she said. “And they take care of most of the paperwork.”
Harvard Solar Garden, LLC is serving as a blueprint, of sorts, for other MA groups trying to start solar cooperatives.
“We applaud the community’s leadership,” said MassCEC CEO Alicia Barton McDevitt.
“The Harvard Solar Garden is leading the way in creating an innovative, community-based program to expand residents’ access to clean solar energy that allows participants to reduce their electric bills while they reduce their environmental footprint.”
Source: Wicked Local Harvard