SHIRLEY -- An assortment of local and company officials and other invited guests gathered for an inaugural event on a recent Friday morning at the site of Shirley's first solar array, built on 20 acres of Water District land off Patterson Road.
After two years of planning and preparation, construction of the three-megawatt facility took about four months and was completed this spring.
With an on-site inverter that converts direct current (DC) to alternating current (AC) for consumer use and about two miles of wires, cables and conduits connecting all 72-units in the 37,047-panel array to each other and to the grid, the delivery route that takes the sun-power to its destination leads to Devens, after tunneling beneath a brook and a road.
But although Devens gets all the power produced by the new facility, which is now up and running, it benefits the town, too, as well as the environment.
The Water District gets $45,000 a year for leasing the land; solar powered electricity, compared to burning wood or coal, saves thousands of acres of trees and "tons" of carbon emissions each year, according to Micah Stanley, business development manager for Empower Energies, one of two project developers. The other was EPG.
In addition to customer perks the Water District can bankroll the lease money for, such as acquiring more land for future wells, the town gets tax revenue.
The first speaker to applaud the accomplishment was Mark Zarallo, V.P.
In all, 16 "entities" were involved in the planning and execution of the solar project, including town, state and local officials.
He rattled off "astounding" facts and figures showing what a difference a solar project like this can make, from fewer trees downed to less demand for fossil fuel. "It's why clean energy projects are so important," he said.
Explaining how solar power works, he said the panels collect sunlight that is converted and transmitted as voltage in a process similar to a municipal water supply set-up, with a reservoir and pipes.
"It goes from here, underground, through 1,000 feet of bedrock," he said. The delivery system also includes 1,400 feet of trench and about two-miles of above and underground wiring.
Water Commissioner Ann Towne and EC Chairman Bryan Dumont praised the project as a team effort in which everyone was striving toward a common goal.
Selectman Kendra Dumont singled out another EC member and former selectman who established the group several years ago.
Her story began at a candidates event preceding a town election seven years ago, when she first met Andy Deveau. An energetic speaker, Deveau touted the benefits of alternative energy and pledged to pursue it as a selectman candidate, which at that time seemed like an ambitious goal for such a small town, Dumont said.
But he believed it was doable and now "his vision" is taking shape, she said, with one solar plant on the grid and at least two more in the planning stages.
Jim Moore, of Devens Utilities, connected the dots.
Six years ago, MassDevelopment put out an RFP that led to another, previous facility built off Walker Road on Devens land once known as "the North Post" in Fort Devens days. Citizens Energy was selected, he said.
But EPG responded, too, among others, he said. "We were open to other offers"
When a deal was brokered for this facility, EPG and Empower Energies got the job.
Moore noted challenges the company faced building the array in Shirley, including a change of venue from one area of the Water District parcel to another, to accommodate a couple of rare turtle species. Devens, with its sprawling acreage now dotted with businesses and a small residential community, now gets three megawatts of power from each of the solar facilities, or six in all, he said.
State Rep. Jen Benson, busy on Beacon Hill, couldn't make the party, but District Director Meagan Green stood in for her. The solar project is a "model" for the state, she said.
Acting Commissioner Meg Lusardi of the Department of Energy Resources (DOER) agreed the opening of the new facility was great news.
Citing the "Clean Energy Revolution" Governor Deval Patrick vowed to launch when he took office, she said the solar power generated from the small town of Shirley put the town on the map, energy-wise.
"You have no idea what a huge achievement this is," Lusardi said.
She said the state-set goal of producing 250 megawatts of power from alternate energy sources by 2017 had already been met and the next, well underway, would provide "equivalent" power that could light up 186,000 homes statewide.
All this good news was thanks to this project and others like it across the state, Lusardi said, made possible in part by "three "key pieces of legislation" that included the Green Communities Act whose designation comes with grant eligibility and other perks and which was given to Massachusetts cities and towns that met its criteria, including Shirley.
The event, including a lunch prepared on site by Vesta Mobile Wood-fired Pizza, was hosted by the Shirley Water District, the Shirley Energy Committee, Empower Energies and Green States Energy.