HARVARD -- More than 100 communities in Massachusetts make up the National Grid "load zone" that Harvard Solar Garden LLC could tap for potential investors to round out a communal, multi-unit building project.
It started out as an in-town alternative to installing independent solar power systems on private properties, one array at a time.
But even with the extended fly zone on his outreach map and a recent presentation in North Hampton that netted seven new members, Solar Garden principal proponent Worth Robbins is still reaching out closer to home with Web tutorials, online sign-ups and a public information session at Volunteers Hall that only a Hillside reporter attended.
It was cold and icy outside, with more sanders than traffic on the roads, which could have explained the empty room. But Robbins said he suspects that online information options might be the way to go from now on.
To date, about 40 investors make up the corporation. Besides Robbins, many other prominent town taxpayers are on the list, including the Harvard Press LLC and Harvard General Store Inc. and co-owner Evelyn Horowitz, whose former residence on Woodchuck Hill Road was the start-up group's first targeted location for the solar garden.
The Horowitz property failed the local litmus test for a building permit, however, and the group looked elsewhere, finally settling on a site on Ayer Road. The several acres of land are leased from Robert Hirsch, whose real estate holdings in the town's only commercially-zoned district include the plaza that houses a bank, a pizza restaurant, a package store and a handful of other businesses. Hirsch Retail Stores is also on the investor's list.
Despite the nonturnout, the recent presentation-turned-interview was informative and offered clues to key questions some townspeople might still be pondering, such as what's in it for the investors, beyond electricity credits?
For Robbins, the primary inspiration was a desire to participate in the alternative-energy movement and reduce his carbon footprint, he said.
There is a payback, but it's unlikely the deal he described would pass muster with the market-savvy investors on the TV show "Shark Tank."
"There is a cash stream from Solar Renewable Energy Credits program," or SRECS, that came from the federal stimulus program, Robbins said, basically a certificate derived from electric rate numbers that were once much more valuable than they are now.
Utilities couldn't meet their carbon-reduction mandates but under the program could broker trade-offs in the form of certificates others could buy. "Initially, it looked like a deal you couldn't afford to pass up," Robbins said. But commercial developers and super-sized projects soon scooped up the certificates. "For us, the SREC payback is the return of our capital investment," which will take about 25 years, or the life of the project, he said.
If, at the end of that time, the project is still viable, there's an option to extend it, he said, but for now, the lifespan of the solar panels and the lease on the land are both on the 25-year track, with room to grow.
The LLC the investors all belong to will receive those payments annually, deduct operating costs, including taxes, and distribute the balance. "But as far as being a profit-making commercial entity," it's not, he said.
Which brought up a point selectmen have been wrangling with: whether to create a new category for community solar gardens in the permit fee schedule that is solely their purview. As it stands, the permit fee is based on total value of the project, deemed a commercial entity, and in this case comes to $18,000.
Robbins made a pitch at Special Town Meeting earlier this year to lower the fee to a level more in line with other states, such as California, where it would cost as little as $7,000 to erect a similar-sized solar facility. He suggested targeting a mid-line figure of about $12,000.
Thus far, the selectmen have been reluctant to change the permit fee, in part because it would trigger revisiting all permit fees, to be fair. But Robbins said the project would move forward anyway. The LLC took out a loan, purchased enough panels to call the project a go for grant purposes, and with the site already cleared, plans to begin construction by January.
Despite the pricey permit, he cited as good news STM's OK of a request to authorize selectmen to enter into a payment in lieu of taxes, or PILOT, agreement when such an offer is on the table, providing tax relief.
Selectmen Chairwoman Marie Sobalvarro has said that passage of the article does not constitute a mandate, however, only a suggestion for the board to consider a PILOT, with authorization to proceed as they see fit.
A calculator prepared for potential investors spells it all out by the numbers, but to provide a case in point for a math-challenged listener, Robbins cited his own investment.
His annual electric usage is about 12,000 kilowatt hours, Robbins said, which translates to purchasing a 10KW system from the garden. The cost of his share was $55,000, but with the state rebate all investors qualify for and a 30 percent federal grant, the net total for him to invest was $36,925, which he hopes to recoup in about 25 years.
"The bottom line is that my $36,000 will bring back $50,000 in 25 years, he said, and the project will break even in 17 years, based on the calculator.
It doesn't sound too lucrative, so why do it? "Because I can change my energy consumption from carbon to renewable," Robbins said.