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State’s first community solar garden opens in Harvard


HARVARD — The sun was beaming down on the state’s first community shared solar garden on Friday, as officials gathered to celebrated the opening of the Harvard Solar Garden.

Nestled behind some greenery on the side of Ayer Road, the new communal garden produces 294 kilowatts of energy dispersed among the 47 members who pay for a share.

Touted as a trailblazer for solar projects throughout the rest of Massachusetts, the new garden came with its challenges over the nearly three-year period that residents and local legislators worked for it.

“Our garden has been planned, sowed, nurtured, and is now ready to harvest power,” said Ruth Silman, one of the proponents of the project who provided legal services. “The power of the sun — the most amazing and truly renewable energy source we know.”

Silman thanked many people at the garden’s official opening ceremony, including resident Worth Robbins, who spearheaded the project.

“There were days and nights when each of us, or perhaps all of us collectively, were ready to throw in the towel, to let some other community be first, to let some other group figure out the really hard stuff and then we would follow,” she said. “There was Worth, with his quiet smile and that twinkle in his eye, and his mind and his Mac going a million miles an hour.”

Robbins said that the whole idea began when the town was able to add 75 new solar contracts through the state’s Solarize Massachusetts program.

The program helped install photovoltaic systems on 75 individual homes throughout Harvard by 2011.

“But along the way, many who wanted to solarize found they couldn’t — too much shade, sloped the wrong way, structural limitations,” he said. “We had heard about the concept of community solar being pioneered in Colorado and California, and thought maybe that would be a way to meet that additional demand.”

The project came with plenty of obstacles, including an effort to find the right location and a zoning change to allow the garden in the commercial district, Robbins explained.

Just last week, the Joint Committee on Revenue reported favorably on the home-rule petition that allows the garden to receive the same tax exemption benefits as individual solar projects.

Aside from member loans, the $1.7 million project was financed in part by the support of Enterprise Bank, a Massachusetts Clean Energy Center grant and a federal grant from the 1603 Program.

But with the state’s solar grant reducing in July and the federal 1603 grant no longer available, Robbins said, the economics for such projects do not look so pretty now.

“Legislation that is under consideration today could make future projects difficult, if not impossible, to subscribe,” he said. “We hope that those of you involved in this endeavor will make every effort to preserve the viability of community shared solar.”

The garden was built and designed by Solar Design Associates, a company right across the road and led by president Steven Strong.

Strong remarked on a lot of “firsts” that SDA has worked on — the world’s first solar home built in 1979, the first solar neighborhood in Gardner built in 1984, the first solar-powered Olympics in Atlanta and more.

“I want to tell you that every one of these projects, and in fact all of these projects total, were easier to get done than the solar garden,” he said as the crowd laughed. “You may not believe it, but even getting solar on the White House was easier.”

State Sen. Jamie Eldridge, who sponsored the home-rule petition along with State Rep. Jen Benson, hailed the project as a model for the state.

“I think it’ll lead to others, and the legislative, bureaucratic and financial processes and obstacles that happened over the past three years were worth it,” he said.

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