ROCKPORT — A new 4.2-megawatt solar farm in the hills above Route 17 will begin to produce electricity soon along with wild Maine blueberries.

State officials and representatives, owners of Navisun and BlueWave solar companies and property owner David Dickey cut the blue ribbon Nov. 10 to celebrate completion of the 10-acre solar farm.

The new 10-acre solar installation off Route 17 in Rockport is located on a blueberry farm that will continue to produce. Photo by Susan Mustapich

Dickey had no plans to build a solar project in 2016, when he bought a large tract of land in Rockport from the Kangas family. Eric Kangas said the land includes about 40 acres of blueberries, which he believes have been there at least 100 years. He and his five siblings raked blueberries as children. In selling the property, the Kangas siblings wanted blueberry farming to continue.

Dickey promised blueberries would continue to grow and hoped they would provide a return on his investment. From the top of the hill at Kangas Farm, are views of the Camden Hills, Blue Hill to the east, Beech Hill and surrounding mountains in Rockport, and the coast to the south. The fields face the Penobscot Bay, get the moisture they need and produce high yields, he said.

Dickey received $11,000 as his share from blueberry sales the first year. The next year his share was $800, as Maine’s blueberry industry saw prices plummet due to a combination of factors.

Soon after, solar companies began to seek him out. The companies search for open spaces, like fields, close to electricity infrastructure and look up the owners, he said.

Near Kangas farm, there just happens to be an upgraded Central Maine Power substation with capacity to handle three-phase power. Dickey had a dozen companies contact him.

Dickey has been obsessed with buying “shiny solar stuff” for years. His Camden Riverhouse Hotel is “loaded with solar,” both photovoltaic to supply electricity and panels to heat domestic hot water. In 1973, his father installed solar panels on top of the family’s Main Street store, during the embargo OPEC members placed on the United States.

BlueWave was one of the solar company owners that contacted Dickey, who said the first letter was handwritten and hand signed. BlueWave is a Boston-based solar developer, specializing in producing clean energy with maintained green space, including land that can provide revenue to community farmers, according to the company website.

Dickey told BlueWave, “if I can’t harvest blueberries, no solar.” The solar industry calls this dual use. When combined with agriculture, it is agrovoltaics. Dickey contacted farmer Paul Sweetland and asked what he thought. Over conversations that continued for a long time, Sweetland agreed to run the blueberry operation.

Two and a half years later, Dickey said he is “real proud” to see the solar completed and to have worked with BlueWave and Navisun.

Now his return on investment will come in the form of lease payments from Navisun. In the future, the land will belong to his grandchildren, he said. One grandchild is related through marriage to the Tolman family. A Tolman, who served in the military in Revolutionary War times, was given land from the Samoset Resort to Pleasant Mountain by General Henry Knox, which includes the hill where Kangas Farm stands. This connects a circle for Dickey, who is also a local history buff.

David Dickey, right, with his daughters and granddaughter at the ribbon cutting for a new solar farm on property he owns in Rockport. Photo by Susan Mustapich

Rockport is the first community solar dual-use agricultural project in Maine, said BlueWave’s Managing Director of Development Chad Nichols. Blueberries were growing during construction and will remain underneath the 10-acre array, a unique project even in agrovoltaics, he said.

The policies enacted by the Gov. Mills administration were absolutely critical to allow a project like this to be built, he said.

The company has just over 150 megawatts of solar deployed, according to Nichols. He called Dickey one of the best landowners from a strategic standpoint and for championing the project. He recognized Sweetland as critical in consulting on the work of installing the solar array over an active blueberry farm.

Research to study how wild blueberry cultivation performs within a solar array will be done by the University of Maine Cooperative Extension and others, and BlueWave will continue to work on the agricultural model in Maine, he said.

At the Nov. 10 ribbon cutting for a 10-acre solar farm in Rockport, State officials included Representative Vicki Doudera, left, Senator Dave Miramant, center.

State Representative and Energy Committee Chair Seth Berry said BlueWave solar was the first company to reach out to the Energy committee and “say there’s a way to do this even better and involve agriculture.”

Dual use solar installation is an opportunity Maine needs to expand on, whether “planting blueberries or cranberries underneath or grazing for sheep or goats,” Berry said.

Berry authored the bill (LD 91) that restored net metering, which had gone away during the LePage administration. He oversaw passage of LD 7011, which created the opportunity for community solar.

Together this legislation “opened the door for sharing the benefits of net metering on a larger scale, for those who cannot install solar panels on their own roof,” he said. It makes possible offers people see  in the mail to sign up for community solar and get 15% off electricity costs, he said.

He credits Gov. Mills, the bipartisan Legislature and members of the Energy Committee, including Rep. Vicki Doudera and Sen. Dave Miramant, as instrumental in the effort.

He also shared a sobering perspective on how much more solar and clean energy is needed in Maine to reduce carbon emissions.

The electricity Maine consumes “is only 7 percent of our emissions,” he said. “Imagine how much solar we will need to electrify transportation (54% of emissions), our building heating and cooling (30%) and factories (9%).

Navisun Managing Director Steve Campbell explained how it partnered with BlueWave and purchased the solar project from them. Navisun is a solar power producer that owns and operates small utility-scale solar projects.

Navisun owns about 150 megawatts of solar “in operation and in construction throughout North East, Virginia and Texas,” he said. The company plans to build at least eight additional community solar projects in Maine.

Dan Burgess, Director of the Governor’s Energy Office, and Hannah Pingree, Director of the Governor’s Office of Policy Innovation and the Future, spoke on behalf of Gov. Janet Mills.

Pingree pointed out “members of Congress, including my mom Chellie Pingree are over in Scotland” trying to figure how to deal with climate change as an entire planet.

“In the state of Maine we set bold goals through the Maine Climate Council and efforts of state legislators,” she said. “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.”

Sen. Miramant talked about years of dealing “with energy lobbyists trying to use the State’s utilities laws to reach into Mainers pockets and take every last dollar that they can.”

In contrast, “turning on clean renewable energy that’s not going to pollute our air water and soil and reduce our health” in Rockport “is the culmination of so much work, and a joy to behold.”

Rep. Doudera talked about facing climate change Mainers see in the warming Gulf of Maine, higher tides, sea level rise and proliferation of invasive species.

“We can’t throw in the towel and can’t give up. We have to do everything in our power to wean ourselves from fossil fuels,” she said. The solar installation in Rockport “is a way we all can be involved” in fighting the climate crisis, she said.

In June 2020, the Rockport Planning Board initially approved the project located at 510 Rockland St. near Maces Pond. In December 2020, it also approved minor adjustments to the plan. In March 2021, BlueWave sold the project to partner Navisun.

Chad Nichols, Managing Director of Solar Development, BlueWave Photo by Susan Mustapich

 

Steve Campbell, Managing Director, Navisun Photo by Susan Mustapich

 

David Dickey, left, landowner where the 10-acre Navisun solar installation is sited, bought the land from Eric Kangas and his siblings in 2016 and promised blueberries will continue to grow there. Photo by Susan Mustapich