By Ken Cleveland ITEM CORRESPONDENT
BOLTON — The fields at Bolton Orchard are covered in snow, and it will be several months before the soil is tilled and seeds planted.
But, on a 50-acre parcel behind the farm's store, the crop is coming in just fine.
The solar project that transformed a former gravel pit into a solar farm is now harnessing the power of the sun, with 20,774 solar panels transforming sunlight into electricity.
The power that will be shipped off into "the grid" is roughly equal to the electricity needs of 1,000 typical American homes.
It took a couple of years to "grow" that "crop."
With a portion of the property largely mined out, Bolton Orchards had a decision to make on the land behind the store at Route 117 and 110.
"We weren't quite sure what we wanted to do with it," according to Joel O'Toole, general partner of Bolton Orchards.
After trying to grow crops in the former pit's "poor land," O'Toole said, "We didn't have any success."
Hearing about solar , Bolton Orchards pursued that option rather than selling part of the farm for residential development.
The farm started in the 1930s, after Jonathan Davis left the family farm in Sterling and bought the Bolton Fruit Company. Bolton Orchards has been a local farm and fruit producer since. For a while in the 1940s, it even hosted a ski jump at the location, before mining the hill for gravel.
"We started doing some looking around with different developers. The rest is history," he said of the completed project, which started actual operation in December. "It's worked out very well."
He said it provides some insurance for the farm, which is subject to the whims of nature and varying sun, rain and temperature.
"There will be income coming in on a yearly basis," O'Toole said. "You have to have multiple sources of income, not just what you produce."
"There is a lot that goes into these," according to Robert Knowles, managing partner at Renewable Energy Massachusetts LLC (REM), which spearheaded the development with Syncarpha Solar LLC.
The first meeting with O'Toole and the Davis family took place in August 2011, he said.
"The fastest moving part was the actual construction," O'Toole said, adding, "I don't think it compares to the time and energy REM put into the project."
O'Toole and Knowles also credited the town's role.
"Bolton was excellent to work with," O'Toole said.
The 6 MegaWatt DC (or 5 MW AC) project finally connected to the National Grid network in December.
"It takes some time to get these large-scale solar facilities done," Knowles said, even helped by incentives, such as tax credits.
The 50 acres of former gravel pit that now houses the solar arrays provide a 25-year lease for the Davis family, while the other 50 acres of the original parcel continues as a gravel operation.
"This made good sense to the Davis family," Knowles said.
The solar farm concept can help keep local farming alive.
In Sterling, for example, a different Davis family built a 2.4 MegaWatt project on 12 acres adjacent to Davis Farmland and MegaMaze, which is providing power to the Sterling Municipal Light Department.
As Bolton Orchard's solar farm transforms sun into energy, Bolton is also looking at its own potential solar.
The town Energy Committee is working on a request for proposals that could attract developers and result in a solar project on town property, similar to those in other communities.
Lancaster also recently completed a project on its capped landfill.
"It's just a perfect use of the land," Knowles said of the Bolton site, noting it was "flat, unshaded, and close to the grid."
Weather in New England is not as predictable as in some areas of the country, adding uncertainty whether the product is corn or power.
Nonetheless, power is generated even when it is overcast.
"That snowstorm in December put that to the test," Knowles said. He said panels warm up and shed snow.
"Any kind of light, it generates some energy," he said. Nonetheless, 80 percent of the power is produced in the spring, summer and fall.
The project is now owned and operated by Main Street Power, a project finance, design, engineering and management company that also recently started operation of a smaller 2.5 MegaWatt facility on 12 acres in Stow.
The company will own and operate the Bolton system for the 25 years of the lease, according to Project Manager Rob Cooper, providing funding and long-term ownership after the initial project development by REM.
Chelmsford, with higher electricity demand and capacity than Bolton, will purchase most of the Bolton facility's 7.4 million kilowatt hours of annually generated electricity under the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities net metering incentive program.
At some point, Bolton will start to see revenue from the project, estimated to be $80,000 yearly, eventually declining to $50,000 annually as equipment ages, according to the payment schedule approved by voters.
Knowles said the company abided by the town's solar bylaw and worked out an agreement with the town — approved by voters at town meeting — on how the facility would be taxed.
"We came up with a formula that was reasonable and acceptable that made economic sense, based on a certain percentage of electricity revenue," Knowles said.
He said getting that agreement, with voter OK, is a hard part of the process and one reason the industry has pushed for efforts, so far unsuccessful, to get a standard in the state rather than negotiating with each town.
He noted the project "is not a resource-sapping project" for the town.
"It's very innocuous, low profile," Knowles said.