Orange farm sees future in energy harvest

ORANGE — George Hunt is about to diversify his dairy operation. Not by raising a new farm animal or growing a different crop, but by milking the power of sunlight.

Hunt plans to lease several parcels along Route 202 to solar companies and expects the project to be in operation by next spring. The installation of 20,000 solar panels on 21 acres will generate 5 to 6 megawatts, enough electricity to power at least 1,500 homes.

Hunt said that while he believes farms should be profitable and not be reliant on outside income, the solar project will help stabilize his dairy. According to Hunt, dairy farms across New England, have struggled to stay profitable in the face of sinking milk prices and soaring feed costs. “Historically, the price of milk has had peaks and valleys, but in recent years, the peaks have been quite narrow and the valleys are broad, wide and last a long time,” he said.

The rent generated from the Soltas and E.P.G. solar companies will provide steady income, allowing him and succeeding generations of his farm family to continue and diversify the operation. The contracts with both companies allow Hunt to reconsider the agreement after 20 years. If the venture is not feasible, the panels can be removed and the land returned to farmland.

Hunt said he has become an advocate of solar farming because it has very little environmental impact while supplying energy, farm income and tax revenue for the town. The land he has rented to solar companies “is not going to increase traffic, put more kids in school, pollute the air or cause a water quality problem.”

He said the production of solar energy from the land will prevent over four million tons of CO2 emissions from power plants each year. In addition, the town will receive a few thousand dollars in additional taxes.

Some farmers, including Ryan Voiland of Red Fire Farm, have recently expressed concern that many solar panels are installed on good farm land, inhibiting production of local food. “They’ve got a good point,” said Hunt, “But this land was poor” and untillable. Hunt said he bought one of the parcels from a developer who was going to put it to commercial use.

According to Hunt, several residents voiced their concerns at the planning meeting about the aesthetics of solar panel installation. “It’s not an ugly thing in my opinion,” he said of the installations that are becoming more and more common along the state’s roadways, as solar companies take advantage of state incentives to develop new installations.

When selectmen were asked for their perspective on the project, Kathy Reinig wondered whether a screen of shrubbery could be planted so that the panels were not visible from the road.

But Hunt said he was not interested in the plantings as “shrubs have a way of overgrowing” and scratching tractor and truck mirrors and fenders. The plantings would also block sun from reaching the solar panels and adjoining pastures and decrease productivity.

Selectman George Willard said he did not think the plantings were necessary. According to Willard, the Hunt Farm has operated along South Main Street for generations “without so much as a single eyesore that I can remember.” He supported the two solar farms to be installed on Hunt land as planned.

Hunt believes that like many new technologies, people balk at first at their appearance, and then come to accept them in their landscape. He says cell towers provide such an example, “nobody wanted them to go up a few years ago, now everyone is crying for more to be built so they can get better service.”

It's time for some investigative journalism- regarding solar farms in Franklin county.

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