ROCKPORT, Maine ― At a passing glance, the sweeping solar array that recently took shape on a hillside just off Route 17 is no different than any other solar project.
But underneath the elevated panels are wild blueberry fields that have been farmed for generations. These fields will continue to be farmed next summer ― despite the presence of the panels ― when the blueberries are once again in season.
The Rockport array is Maine’s first commercial-scale dual-use ― or agrivoltaic ― solar project, meaning that the project incorporates agricultural and solar energy production on the same site.
The project was officially unveiled during a ribbon cutting ceremony Wednesday afternoon, when it was touted by solar experts and state officials as an example for how Maine can meet climate change and renewable energy goals.
“In the state of Maine we’ve set bold goals,” said Hannah Pingree, director of the Governor’s Office of Policy, Innovation and the Future. “This project is how we actually make those goals happen. How communities and farmers and people can benefit from the work of reducing our emissions.”
Construction of the 4-megawatt array was completed in August and is slated to begin producing power during the first week of December, according to Stephen Campbell, managing director of Navisun, a Massachusetts-based company that owns and operates the project. The array will provide power to local customers through a net-energy billing agreement.
The project was developed by Boston-based solar developer BlueWave. The University of Maine Cooperative Extension has also partnered with Navisun and BlueWave to help oversee the research aspect of the project, which will include collecting data on how the presence of the solar panel affects the growth of the blueberries below.
The data collected through this pilot project can help inform how and if dual-use solar projects like the Rockport site can be replicated elsewhere in the state, according to Campbell.
The property that the array is located on is owned by David Dickey. However, the blueberries on the property are cultivated by farmer Paul Sweetland. Dickey has leased 10-acres of his property to Navisun, and Sweetland will be able to conitute to cultivate blueberries on the site through a sublease, Campbell said.
“This blueberry field is hundreds of years old, so how do we work with the land as it’s been presented to us, versus peeling it off and putting solar on top of it,” said Alan Robertson, managing director of solar development for BlueWave.
The site is broken down into different zones based on the level of care that was executed during the construction process. In one five-acre area, the array was constructed using techniques aimed at reducing the impact on the blueberry bushes. This included the use of fiberglass matts to bring equipment in for one section, and sticking to a single route in and out of a second section.
A third section, which also totals five acres, normal construction operations were done without special consideration to the bushes.
While it will take a couple of growing seasons to determine how the blueberry bushes have been affected by construction and the presence of the panels, project representatives said blueberries were growing this summer after construction began.
“I think a lot of it came back really well,” said Adam Farkes, a superintendent with CS Energy, the company that constructed the array. “We minimized the disturbance of [the bushes]. Obviously, over the course of time we will see how the blueberries come back.”
The solar panels will not have to be moved for Sweetland to harvest the blueberries. In the five-acre area where careful construction methods were used, Robertson said Sweetland will be able to go under the panels with an ATV towing harvesting equipment to pick the berries. On the five-acre plot where no careful construction methods were used, Sweetland will be able to hand pick the blueberries as they grow back.
The University of Maine Cooperative Extension will be working alongside Sweetland to collect data and gauge how the solar panels are impacting blueberry production.
“Ideally, this is a five-year time frame that we [can] have concrete data that says ‘If you do it this way, you can learn from this example and replicate it,’” said Iain Ward, founder of Solar Agricultural Services, Inc, who worked with developers and the University of Maine Cooperative Extension on the project.