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Greener pastures

  • Recorder/Mike Phillips<br/>Solar panels are installed on a farm in Athol.

    Recorder/Mike Phillips
    Solar panels are installed on a farm in Athol.

  • Recorder file photo<br/>Adams Farm’s Slaughterhouse in Athol is going to be powered by solar energy from its new photovoltaic project.

    Recorder file photo
    Adams Farm’s Slaughterhouse in Athol is going to be powered by solar energy from its new photovoltaic project.

  • Recorder/Mike Phillips<br/>Solar panels are installed on a farm in Athol.
  • Recorder file photo<br/>Adams Farm’s Slaughterhouse in Athol is going to be powered by solar energy from its new photovoltaic project.

ATHOL — At the Garlic and Arts Festival in Orange a few years back, two recently transplanted Athol men got to talking about making farms more viable and cutting the region’s energy use.

Those talks led to a focus on helping their town in its quest for state Green Communities status, and how to reduce Athol’s energy use by 20 percent to become eligible for a $170,000 state grant.

At daily meetings at the bus stop with their kids, Kristin Marquis and Hal Gillam seized on an idea to develop a solar farm to cut energy costs for public, private and non-profit organizations. To do that, they formed Pequoig Energy LLC about two years ago and then went off to find users for the planned solar-generated electricity.

“I said, ‘We need to do something to help farms, since there are very few around the region anymore,” said Marquis, who had grown up in town and moved back about six years ago to care for family. They turned to Adams Farm, a livestock operation that had reopened its slaughterhouse in 2008 after a fire two years earlier. The 128-acre farm had a 22-acre rocky site full of invasive plants and couldn’t be used for production but could be leased for solar-electric panels.

“They said, ‘If we could do something there, go ahead’,” said Marquis, who had gotten a pig for a pig roast from the farm years earlier.

Do something they did. Pequoig Energy had a groundbreaking there this month for a 3-megawatt photo-voltaic system that will provide electricity not only to the farm, but also to Athol Memorial Hospital, the Athol YMCA and even Warwick and Petersham municipal buildings.

Marquis and Gillam needed an investor for the project, and Soltas Energy of New York stepped forward with funding, becoming owner-operator of the roughly $6 million project, as well as a similar project on the Hunt Farm in Orange.

There, for a pair of parcels along Route 202 — about 6.5 acres and 3.5 acres, about 800 feet apart, with a hayfield between them, two PV systems, 2 megawatts and 1 megawatt, were recently approved by the Orange Planning Board, with a renewable 20-year lease to the Hunt Farm and most of the electricity generated credited to Athol’s town hall, wastewater treatment plant, pumping station, police and fire stations.

The benefit to Hunt Farm, which recently also won a $20,000 grant toward installation of a 55-kilowatt PV array on its barn to provide all the farm’s electric needs and then some, will be in the lease, which George Hunt Jr. said is the neighborhood of $3,000 to $4,000 per acre per year.

“We’ll be able to get some income out of the land that we were getting nothing out of,” said Hunt, adding that the larger parcel is “just boulders and rocks,” and the smaller, wooded, piece he bought last August should pay for itself in three or four years.

While there have been controversial conversions of farmland elsewhere around the region for solar arrays, Hunt says, provisions in his lease call for removal of the post-mounted system if it’s not renewed. “Even if we were able to plant corn on the parcels,” he said, he still wouldn’t do anywhere near as well.

The Adams Farm Slaughterhouse will make use of about 15 percent of the output of the 3-megawatt project, according to Ed Maltby, business manager for the operation, which serves about 250 farms around the region.

Marquis added that at the site, where the first panels have already been installed on the first of four project phases, the land has been graded, with a nitrogen-fixing clover mix placed beneath the panels so that whenever the lease expires, “They’ll be getting back what was a nasty, overgrown, rocky invasive piece and get great agricultural land at the end of the project.

He said that one of the more difficult aspects of the projects was finding an investor who was comfortable with the idea of a long-term property lease, since Pequoig felt that would be a much better financial arrangement to the farmers than selling their land outright.

For Athol Memorial Hospital, which spends about $20,000 a month on electricity, the 10-year, fixed price agreement for about 66 percent of the project’s output “will be a tremendous asset,” said President and CEO Jim Meehan, who said he expects to save about 5 percent on electricity costs.

The remaining 1 megawatt of power from the project will be divided roughly evenly, with about 400 kilowatts going to Adams Farm, 300 to the YMCA and about another 300 for the municipal buildings in Warwick and Petersham.

In Warwick, where all municipal buildings other than the school will have power costs reduced, Town Coordinator David Young said, “We’re excited,” since the town is involved in several projects designed to cut its energy bills and its related greenhouse-gas emissions.

Marquis said, “We were trying to get the community to go green, but also, with Athol and Orange two of the poorest towns in state, we saw this as way to bring resources back to our towns. The Green Communities Act the project helped secure has resulted in retrofitting 17 town buildings, for example.”

In addition to lowering energy costs, Gillam said he sees the project as “a driver for economic development” in the region.

You can reach Richie Davis at
rdavis@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, Ext. 269

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