Sunday, August 22, 2010

Orchard Goes Solar

A year ago on Carlson Orchards along the edge of Oak Hill Road in Massachusetts 50-year-old Macintosh apple trees were coming to the end of their productive life.

At the same time, owners of the farm were looking for ways to extend the life of their business. Today, those trees are gone, but a new product is bearing fruit — 1,050 solar panels generating close to two-thirds of the power needed to run the farm.

Franklyn Carlson, president of the 120-acre Carlson Orchards on Oak Hill Road, was joined at the farm yesterday by officials representing state and federal governments and private business to celebrate what he said was just the latest change in a farm his parents, Walter and Eleanor Carlson, started in 1938. He and his brothers Bruce and Robert own the business.

“I'm sure my father would have been scratching his head last April when we started cutting down the trees and he would have been scratching his head even more when he saw the concrete piers going down,” he said.

What grew out of the old section of orchard was a field of panels, which, at 220 kilowatts, is the largest solar installation at a farm in the state, eclipsing a 65 kilowatt system at Four Stars Farm in Northfield.

The solar panels were installed as a way of reducing some of the $80,000 per year in electrical costs, much of which is needed to power two large refrigeration barns where apples are stored after they are harvested.

David Weiher, a friend of the Carlson family, said the idea of installing solar panels at the farm had been discussed many times, but the demands of the harvest and running the farm always took precedence over developing something new. He said it wasn't until Symantha Gates, founded EC3 Sustainability Consulting in Amherst, N.H., and was looking for a green project to do, that idea became reality.

Ms. Gates said she is not a farmer and is not really good at growing things, but she understands what goes on behind the scenes at Carlson Orchards, including a heavy reliance on energy for its cooling barns to store fruit in. She brought together $1.25 million in financing for the project from private, federal and state sources, including $900,000 in grants.

Among the grants received was a $565,000 grant from the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, a $30,000 grant from the state Department of Agricultural Resources and $287,638 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Jay Healey, of the USDA and a farmer and former state agricultural commissioner, said he visited Carlson Orchards 15 years ago as agricultural commissioner and is happy to be back and see the changes that have ensured the land remains in farming.

“Frank and the whole family have added value to the farm and we all benefit and get to see the views and see that these farms are still in operation,” he said.

Mr. Healey said he has a much smaller solar installation on his farm, but it is doing well enough that when he went out in November at night under a full moon, he saw it was generating 1.7 kilowatts of electricity.

Also attending was U.S. Rep. Nicola S. “Niki” Tsongas, D-Lowell, who was credited with helping get the federal grants approved. She said with 300 farms in her district, agricultural protection has become a priority.

“It's really important that we protect our farms,” she said.

The Carlson Orchards project was installed by Lighthouse Electrical Consulting of Boston, which hired Stephen Kelleher Architects to design the mounting of the arrays on slanted ground using I-beams set on concrete piers. The 210-watt solar panels were made by Evergreen Solar of Marlboro and the solar inverters and data acquisition equipment were made by Solectria Renewables.

Michael W. McCarthy, director of investor relations for Evergreen Solar, said the company ships to companies around the world for a variety of installations, but the company is happy to be part of the Carlson Orchards project, which is just down the road from where the panels are made at Devens.

“This is a great project for us just because it is local,” he said.

Mr. McCarthy said Evergreen, which produced its 1 millionth panel in June, has received state assistance in developing its company and the installation in Harvard allows it to pass along what it has developed to create an ongoing sustainable source of electricity. He said the panels have a life expectancy of 25 years but with little to deteriorate over that time, they could be generating electricity beyond that.

The solar installation should pay for itself in about five years, but Mr. Carlson is not ready to say it will be the last major change he will see at the 82-year-old farm. He said the farm fields have gone from growing potatoes to apples and more recently various other varieties of fruit.

“We've seen changes here and we'll see more changes,” he said. “I can't tell you what the next big thing will be here at Carlson Orchards, but our customers demand local produce and we will be here to supply them.”


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