A $10 million ground-mounted photovoltaic farm designed to generate electricity sufficient to power a town is proposed for Westborough's .
Farm owner Jim Harvey says the project is "for survival."
"Probably the biggest (reason) is to pay down my debt load. My goal is to leave my children with all of the land that I have. I don't want to sell any of it. And I don't want to leave them in debt," Harvey said during a recent interview at the farm, at 120 South St. The project is proposed for 7 Maple Ave.
"This is basically a 20-year plan that would take care of that."
The Westborough Board of Appeals has scheduled a public hearing on Harvey's Farm LLC's variance request for 7:30 tonight at the .
The board's decision likely will turn the project on, or off, suggests Charles Jenkins, who said he facilitates partnerships between investors and developers in "the burgeoning new solar industry" in the area, particularly Massachusetts.
That's because such a project is "so new that there aren't even bylaws to address it" in Westborough, among other communities, Jenkins said.
"Here's the problem: we're already well into this. We need closure, because the clock's ticking. The investors are paying a lot of money out," he said.
"If we go to the zoning board of appeals on Monday and we are unsuccessful, the propensity this project will die is in the 90 percents. Which means that Jim loses a great deal of money that he put in, to prepare the land.
"It's a tough situation. We're holding our breath."
The "biggest problem" facing the project is that Westborough officials see it as a commercial use, Jenkins said.
"Other towns have looked at this: it's the farm doing business, all they need is a building permit. Go for it. As long as your plans are sound, you conform to the building inspector and the bylaws at hand," Jenkins said.
"We've had to jump through a lot of hoops that may not be necessary, and in other towns are not necessary."
"Here's the problem: we're already well into this. We need closure, because the clock's ticking. The investors are paying a lot of money out," Jenkins said.
During initial meetings, Westborough officials indicated Harvey's proposed estimated three megawatt project "seemed to fit in with all the bylaws" but would "probably have go to the zoning board, just as a formality," he said.
Harvey and his supporters have spent months "spun around in a couple of different directions" and "it's costing hundreds of thousands of dollars," Jenkins said.
The project is a $10 million investment, Jenkins said. Private investors have been secured, he said. Harvey would remain the landowner, and lease the land to the project, receiving revenue based on how much land is used and how much electricity is produced. Harvey said he has invested $50,000 into the project.
The proponents seek to get the photovoltaic farm "up and running before the end of the calendar year," Jenkins said.
If a building permit is issued, it "takes probably four to six weeks to put the whole thing up," he said.
The project would generate about 3 megawatts of electricity, Jenkins said. One megawatt is sufficient to power "200 to 400 homes," he said.
Harvey would use some of this electricity, Jenkins said.
The proponents have offered to supply Westborough "with power for significantly less than what you're buying it for currently," a process which would happen "through credits that can be achieved that now can be sold and assigned to others to offset whatever they would pay on their bills," Jenkins said.
"This farm, as a community member, could save everybody in town a great deal of money. And it's green," he said.
Jenkins said he has "seven or eight projects in a similar stage:" plans, designed the array, and prepared the land. Most of the projects are in Central Mass., he said.
Jenkins said he has sought out farmers, who face an "increasingly difficult task of staying above water."
If farmers are "close on the edge," they "either have to subdivide, surrounding themselves with homes and yoking the town with the expenses of 30 new families," or pursue "some kind of government subsidy," Jenkins said.
Photovoltaic farms are "win-win" efforts between "new technology and the age-old farm," he said.
"You can have it as a practical lab to teach school children about these new power sources, green energy," Jenkins said.
However, not everyone agrees.
"It's new. And people are a little bit afraid, as people always are, hearkening back to when they put up telephone poles in the 1830s. People were like, 'Oh no! Not here! They're an eyesore!' Well, they're still here. (We) drive by them every day (and) hardly see them," Jenkins said.
The commercial use issue is another concern raised.
"Well, all farms are commercial use," Jenkins said.
"This farm has been there for 100 years, selling everything from tractors to livestock to tomatoes to firewood. It's a commercial entity. Where are we getting lost here, folks? This is another way for the farmer to utilize his farm to make money."
Harvey said he is exploring "growing crops between the (solar) panels."
There's a state pilot program that studies "what can be grown under panels," he said.
There's "a shade-loving plant that most people know about" that's "grown under trees and shrubs," Harvey noted.
Harvey said tonight's public hearing will occur in the same building where he did a photovoltaic project for a seventh-grade science fair.
"So, I've been into this for quite a while," he said.
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