ST. AGATHA, Maine — It’s not much to look at right now, just 20 giant poles stuck in the ground in the middle of a northern Maine field, but to Keith LaBrie, it’s money in the bank.
By next summer the poles will each support a 15-foot-by-5-foot solar panel array that together LaBrie said will supply 60 percent of this family farm’s electrical needs.
LaBrie, along with his brother Duane and son Jacob, grows and stores more than 500 acres of potatoes annually.
“Can you hear that?” LaBrie said one day last week, standing near the solar site and pointing over his shoulder to the large potato storage shed across the road. “Those fans run 24-7 from November until March or April.”
Each of the farm’s six storage sheds has one of the 7.5 horsepower fans that circulate air and heat around the potatoes as they await shipment.
And each of those fans runs on electricity.
“Right now we are averaging around $35,000 to $36,000 a year in electrical costs,” LaBrie said. “Once we sat down and looked at the numbers of going with solar power, we saw that it was not only environmentally sustainable, it’s economically feasible, too.”
The 300 solar panels — 15 to a pole — are projected to produce a combined 76.5 kilowatts of power annually, taking advantage of what Dale Roy of Maine Solar and Wind, LLC in Fort Kent, said is northern Maine’s 4.95-hours of rated sunlight.
“That’s a really good number compared to other areas of the state,” Roy said. “We have nice, clear days up here and fairly little rain.”
According to Roy, when talking about solar generated electricity, sunlight is rated according to how many hours in a day it can produce maximum wattage over a fixed area on a panel.
And while northern Maine days are short in winter months compared to sunnier spots to the south, Roy said the cool temperatures put the state at an advantage when it comes to producing solar power.
“Solar systems don’t like the heat, so the colder the better,” he said.
The components in the solar panels that produce the electricity are far more efficient the colder it is, Roy said.
And that’s good news for LaBrie and his family’s farm.
“The solar panels are going to produce 60 percent of the electricity we use for the farm every year,” he said.
The LaBrie system will be tied to the northern Maine power grid so instead of actually directly supplying electricity to the farm, the power will be purchased by Emera Maine and credited to LaBrie through net metering.
“Emera makes it a great deal,” LaBrie said. “The net metering allows me to produce the energy and have it run through a single meter on the farm.”
Susan Faloon, communications supervisor at Emera, said a project like the LaBrie Farms’ solar array is good for business, the environment and residents.
“At Emera Maine, we know customers depend on us to power their homes and businesses and to provide solutions for sustainability,” Faloon said. “We’re working to ensure the grid is the platform that enables customer choice for projects such as [the LaBries’] and we applaud their initiative in becoming a green and sustainable company.”
Elsewhere in the state agricultural operations are using other forms of renewable energy to power their operations.
Stonyvale Farm, a fifth-generation, family-owned dairy farm in Exeter is using an anaerobic digestion system, which turns animal and food wastes into energy.
Cozy Acres Greenhouses in North Yarmouth combines solar and geothermal energy to power its business.
LaBrie said many of the companies in the agricultural world are encouraging farms to become more environmentally sustainable.
“They like to see us being good stewards of the land,” he said. “We certainly feel that’s important, too.”
LaBrie said he worked with Madawaska’s community development director Suzie Paradis to apply for a $50,000 federal USDA Rural Energy for America Program renewable energy grant which he received last summer.
LaBrie said he hopes to begin installing the racks that will hold the panels within the coming weeks but said placing the solar panels will wait until next spring.
“I think we are going to run out of good weather before we can get it all done,” he said.
Each of the 1,000- pound, 21-foot tall, 8-inch-diameter poles was sunk close to 9-feet into the ground and is secured with a concrete footing, LaBrie said.
Once completed, he said the solar array will be relatively maintenance free.
“We may have to manually reposition the panels four times a year depending on the sun angle,” he said. “Other than that, the panels are just there and do their thing making electricity.”
Other than saying it was “significant,” LaBrie would not comment on the exact cost of purchasing and installing the solar array on the farm.
He did say the USDA grant covers around 20 percent of the total cost and, when factoring in the available federal tax credits on renewable energy projects, he estimates the project will pay for itself in six or seven years.
If all goes well, LaBrie said he would consider expanding the array to the point it provides 100 percent of the farm’s electrical needs.
“Doing this was not really a tough sell when you consider the payback period,” LaBrie said. “It was really a no-brainer.”