SHIRLEY -- On a sunny spring morning, the nearly completed solar farm on Water District land off Patterson Road resembled a scene from a science fiction movie, set on another planet.

Surrounded by wooded land with a cone-shaped declivity that could pass for a meteor pit, a narrow, dirt access road leads up from the protected area around one of the town wells to the 16-acre solar farm site, the highest point on the property.

A brief, bumpy truck ride ends on high ground and wide, open spaces cleared and leveled to accommodate dozens of solar arrays that seemed to have grown up from the earth like crops in a field. Rows and rows of them, silent and motionless: 13,000 flat fiberglass panels, tilted toward the sun.

This wasn't the first site chosen, according to Water Department Superintendent Brian Goodman, who conducted a recent tour. The original proposal was to build the solar farm elsewhere on Water District land, but that area was ruled out due to turtle habitat.

Rather than launch another study, an adjacent site was developed instead, he said.

As unconventional as they look, these are not the low-slung, pitched roofs of an underground factory but the facility itself, built on site and above ground, like any other.

Green Earth Developers, which leased the land from the Water District for $45,000 a year, hired contractors to do the work, from site preparation to installations.

Slant-mounted on hefty, ground-hugging metal easels, the silvery panel arrays are lined up like roads, all facing the same way and appearing from a distance as a straight, uninterrupted ribbon. But there are narrow spaces between some of the structures.

A few big boxes stood between some of the row as Goodman showed a couple of visitors around: panels to be mounted. The frames were erected earlier, set on posts firmly anchored in the ground.

A small crew on site would unpack the boxes and begin that work. But most of the heavy lifting was done and the project was on track for a June 1 completion date, he said.

When it's all done, the entire set-up will be connected to a transmission line snaked under Walker Brook and Walker Road to deliver solar-generated power to nearby Devens.

The site will be covered by security cameras and enclosed by fencing.

The solar farm was a joint project of the Town, the Water Dept. and the Energy Committee, said Goodman, who has worked for the district for 27 years.

Benefits

One of 13 projects the Water District has undertaken over the last dozen years, the solar farm lease money will help pay for other projects on the drawing board, Goodman said, such as finding and acquiring a site for a another well to serve the town's future needs.

Self-sustaining through user-fees and grants, the district had other work in progress even while the current project was underway, Goodman said, such as adding a new water tank and a new town well and replacing water mains.

Actually, there are almost always projects in the works, he said.

Now, for example, he's working with a state agency on a plan to extend an existing water line to provide service to the Mohawk Apartments on Great Road.

Besides the Water District lease, the town will also benefit, reaping revenue from a PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) agreement with the developer over the 20-year life of the project (the approximate lifespan of the panels) and beyond. The contract allows an extension, Goodman said.