Farmers in the Monadnock Region could soon harness the power of the sun — for more than growing crops.
Plans are in the works for a community-supported solar energy project on Sun Moon Farm in Rindge. The 95-kilowatt array would produce far more power than the farm needs, so the idea is to have other farmers in the region buy in. Each farmer would receive credit for a share of the electricity produced there, reducing his or her energy costs.
“It fits in well with our mission of conservation of natural resources, but improving the viability of farm businesses as well,” said Amanda Littleton, district manager of the Cheshire County Conservation District, one of the entities involved. “And so we just saw this as a really great opportunity to help farms be more profitable.”
The Monadnock Sustainability Network and ReVision Energy are also part of the project.
Craig Jensen of Sun Moon Farm said he and his wife, Megan, jumped at the chance to host the array.
“Small farmers in this area are thinking about sustainability,” he said. “And our customers want us to be thinking about sustainability — especially the smaller growers who are, like we are, organic growers, community-focused growers.”
But renewable-energy investments can come with a hefty price that’s beyond the reach of many small farmers, Jensen said. He sees this project as a more affordable option for them.
Building one large solar array for multiple customers — rather than several smaller systems — spreads the fixed costs around, reducing each customer’s initial investment, said Dan Weeks, director of market development for ReVision Energy, the solar company that’ll install the array.
Jensen said the panels at Sun Moon Farm will go on two strips of land that aren’t useful for agriculture but have good sun exposure.
With the array slated to go up later this year, Littleton said she’s working on bringing enough farms on board to make the project viable.
“We have some committed,” she said. “We are really actively trying to seek more.”
The expected yearly output is divvied up into shares of 5,000 kilowatt-hours per year — about half the annual consumption of an average residential customer in the U.S. in 2017, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Farms with higher electricity needs can claim multiple 5,000-kilowatt-hour shares.
Littleton said the cost per share is about $6,200, though that doesn’t all have to be paid up front. Each share entitles a farmer to 5,000 kilowatt hours per year for the life of the system, estimated to be at least 20 to 25 years, she said.
Initially, the array will be owned by investors, and farmers will buy power at a discounted rate. Then, after six years, the farmers buy out the investors and own the solar array — that’s what those payments of $6,200 go toward, Littleton said. After that, they will get electricity from the solar array for free.
A similar financing model was used for a solar array on the roof of the Monadnock Food Co-op in Keene, which the Monadnock Sustainability Network also worked on, said John Kondos, the group’s board president.
“So we know that the process works, we know that it’s a viable model,” he said. He expects the Rindge project to lower farmers’ energy costs. “Those are one thing you don’t have much control over.”
The conservation district has received a $50,000 grant from the Thomas W. Haas Fund of the N.H. Charitable Foundation, which is helping to lower the buy-in cost for farmers, according to Littleton.
For the Jensens, the community solar project seemed a near-perfect fit, in Craig’s telling.
The couple began exploring the possibility of installing solar at the farm on Thomas Road about a year and a half ago, he said. Initially, they thought about a residential-size system. But a visit from N.H. Rural Renewables, a group that helps small farms assess renewable-energy options, convinced them their land would be suitable for a community-scale project.
The Jensens operate their vegetable farm on a community-supported-agriculture model customers subscribe to. Craig said their thinking was, “Could we also have them subscribe for multi-year for energy from the farm as well?” But the finances proved impossible.
Then they learned about the solar-for-farmers initiative last winter, and signed on as the project site.
Aside from the solar array’s financial and environmental benefits, Craig said he’s excited about the community aspect.
“We’re a CSA that feeds about 100 families, and I think it’s gonna be awesome to have this 100-kilowatt solar array on the farm that all these people come to,” he said. “And being able to say, ‘Yes, we can do this — and we can only do this because of collaboration.’ ”