By Mike LaBella
HAVERHILL — Its rows and rows of shiny panels tilted toward the sun have been catching the eyes of drivers passing by.
It is the talk of neighbors who have watched workers in hard hats come and go from the site since the summer.
Construction of a solar energy farm on Hilldale Avenue is nearing completion. When activated, it will harvest the rays from the sun and convert them to enough electricity to power 175 to 200 homes each year.
Fouad Dagher, program manager for National Grid's solar development program, said work began in Haverhill in August on the formerly unused 5-acre site. Located in a mostly residential area just outside of busy Lafayette Square, it is not where you would expect to see a sea of solar panels.
"It is unusual. You typically don't have the open space and orientation in a city," Dagher said.
Haverhill's is the biggest of four solar farms being built by National Grid this year in Massachusetts. One of the sites in Whitinsville opened this summer. One in Everett will be completed soon and another in Revere will be completed by the end of the year.
As many as 20 local tradespeople have been working at the Hilldale site daily, including union electricians, iron workers, carpenters and excavation machine operators.
When it is completed, there will be 3,670 solar panels, each about five feet by three feet, bolted to aluminum frames that tilt them at the best angle for capturing sunlight.
"We're hoping to have the system up and running by the end of the year," Dagher said. "Solar farms are one way to combat climate change. It is a clean way of producing electricity."
Donald Durgin grew up across from the site and remembers a time when there were tall gas storage tanks on the property.
"They were huge tanks, maybe 80-feet high," said Durgin, who lives at 123 Hilldale Ave.
Durgin called the site "an eyesore" at this time, but expects it will be more attractive and blend into the neighborhood better when the work is done and National Grid fills in bare areas with shrubs and grass, as it plans.
"I'd like a few of those solar panels on top of my house," Durgin joked. "A lot of people are doing that."
According to local historians, in the 1890s a coal-to-gas manufacturing plant in downtown Haverhill stored its product in tanks on the property. When that method of manufacturing gas was eventually phased out, the site was used to store natural gas. The last tank was decommissioned in the early 1970s and the for the most part the site has been unused. In recent years it was declared a Brownfields site and underwent a clean up that turned it into a green energy site.
Mayor James Fiorentini said not only does the project bring the city tax dollars, it boosts Haverhill's image as a "forward-looking green community."
"I think it's the same thing as having solar panels on the top of our Citizens Center and having a solar panel in GAR Park," he said of Haverhill's methods of harvesting power from the sun.
Fiorentini said having a good image is an important thing for a city, and is one facet in attracting residents and businesses.
Dagher said another aspect of the project is that it will serve as an educational site and learning resource for area schools.
Dorchester will see a solar farm next year and the company estimates that designing and building the five sites will cost approximately $31 million. The company anticipates it will cost its Massachusetts customers approximately 6 cents per month on average over the life of the project to pay for the solar panel installations.
"There is no waste, no emissions, and hopefully in the future it will reduce our dependence on foreign oil," Dagher said. "And it supports the governor's green community act to develop solar in Massachusetts."
The Massachusetts Green Communities Act, a 2008 law, allows utilities to own up to 50 megawatts of solar generation.
"By the end of the year, we will have about 3.5 megawatts production and we will be the largest owner of solar generation in Massachusetts this year," Dagher said.
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Haverhill solar projects by the numbers
20 local contractors have been working since June on the site, supporting the effort to create green jobs.
3,670 solar panels, each rated at 270 watts, are being installed.
Each panel weighs 66 pounds and, enclosed in a layer of protective safety glass, can withstand the impact of a hailstone traveling up to 52 mph.
The panels would stretch nearly 6.5 miles is they were laid end to end.
72 cells are on each panel for a total of 264,240 cells.
1 megawatt of electricity will be generated by the site, enough to serve between 175 and 200 homes annually.
$5.9 million is the estimated cost of the project.