WESTFORD — The first visitors to New England’s largest privately owned solar energy park nearly missed it. Nestled on a plateau more than half a mile from the road, the state-of-the-art array is hidden from view, surrounded by woods at the edge of the old Fletcher Quarry.
Restless after a long bus ride from Cambridge, the fifth-grade students from Shady Hill School were eager to see firsthand how the sun’s energy was being harnessed. But the meeting proved elusive. There was no sign marking the site of the Westford Solar Park. The only clues they were in the vicinity of something big were the small signs posted along the meandering dirt driveway that warned: “Video surveillance in use on these premises.”
After a quick call to confirm they were in the right place, the bus made its way to a chain-link fence that wraps around a steep embankment covered with rocks. The bus passed the security checkpoint and toiled slowly up the hill as 35 pairs of eyes, suddenly alert, strained to see. At the crest of the knoll, the curious visitors got their first glimpse.
“Mouths dropped,” recalled Cali Johnston, 11, whose father, Jeff, a principal with the firm that built the array, arranged the visit. “We were amazed at how huge it was. As far as the eye could see, there were panels. I knew it was going to be a giant site but when I saw it, it was so much bigger than I had ever imagined. It was incredible.”
This sea of shimmering glass, still under construction, stretches across a 22-acre site, on land that once was part of the adjacent century-old granite quarry. In its first year, the solar park is expected to produce 5.2 million kilowatt hours of electricity. When fully operational, the facility, developed by Cathartes Private Investments and operated by the solar power company Nexamp Inc. of North Andover, will produce up to 4.5 megawatts of energy, enough electricity to power more than 600 homes.
The $20 million complex, with 14,000 solar panels, is being touted as a prime example of Governor Deval Patrick’s ongoing commitment to sustainability and making the Commonwealth a cleaner, greener place. Through successful public-private partnerships, the amount of solar installed in Massachusetts has soared from 3.5 megawatts in 2007 to more than 92 megawatts, according to Richard K. Sullivan Jr., secretary of the state Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.
The Westford project is one of several large-scale renewable energy developments spurred by the Massachusetts Green Communities Act, which was signed into law by Patrick in 2008 to support renewable energy and efficiency projects. The state approved a $5.8 million Qualified Energy Conservation Bond allocated by the US Treasury for the Westford Solar Park.
When he flipped the switch on the facility during a ceremony late last month, Patrick called the growth of solar power in Massachusetts “a winning strategy” that is generating both clean energy and new jobs, “leading us out of the recession faster than other states.”
The governor noted that because of recent efforts, Massachusetts now surpasses California as the nation’s leader in renewable energy.
“Solar panels like the ones you see here cost $10 a watt back in 1980,” said Jim Goldenberg, cofounder of Cathartes. “In 2008, they cost $4 a watt. Today, they cost about 85 cents. The development of projects like this will continue to drive that cost down.”
The facility is unique in that all of the project’s key players — from the developer and its financiers to the operator and its utility partner — are Massachusetts companies. National Grid, the largest electricity transmission service provider in New England, will connect the Westford facility to the company’s distribution system, purchasing the energy through the state’s new net-metering law.
The project is Nexamp’s largest to date, said Will Thompson, senior vice president of construction, noting that the facility is already delivery energy to its first client, the University of Massachusetts Lowell.
According to Chancellor Marty Meehan, the new partnership will save the university $800,000 in electricity costs over the next 20 years. “Through our participation in this solar energy project, UMass Lowell is showing that sustainability is not only the right thing to do for the health of our planet, but that it can also be fiscally sound,” he said.
Once construction is completed in July, other clients of the Westford Solar Park will include MIT Lincoln Laboratory, Middlesex Savings Bank, and the Dudley-Charlton Regional School District southeast of Worcester.
Goldenberg, whose company’s portfolio of green projects includes the 5-acre Portwalk development in downtown Portsmouth, N.H., is confident that solar power one day will eclipse electricity created by burning fossil fuels. That day will come, he said, “When the cost of solar electricity equals the cost of fossil fuel electricity production.” He is welcoming students to the Westford Solar Park in the hope that a visit to the site will spark the next wave of technological advancements.
“I see this project as a great opportunity to inspire and instill in youngsters an interest in renewable energy,” said Goldenberg. “We will only do so much. It’s the next generation that will have the real impact. Hopefully, seeing this project will inspire them.”
For at least one student, the visit fueled a desire to delve deeper into her science studies.
“I was blown away,” said Johnston, the Shady Hills student.
“Before I went to Westford, I knew that the sun made energy, but my understanding of how the whole process works was so far off.
“There’s all these little parts and pieces that contribute to the whole process and transform sunlight, which we all kind of take for granted, into energy. It was amazing to see how those tiny rays of light can be used to contribute to our daily life and cost so much less than other kinds of energy, and be so much better for the environment.”