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Maine Audubon plans next-generation solar energy array in Falmouth

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Maine Audubon plans next-generation solar energy array in Falmouth

FALMOUTH — Ted Koffman, the executive director of Maine Audubon, stood in the shadow of a 150-year-old apple tree and pointed toward the nonprofit group's headquarters – a passive-solar building constructed at Gilsland Farm in 1976.

The stark, angular structure was state of the art at the time, but now it shows its age.

"It's kind of like the Model-T of solar," Koffman said. "It works, but we can do better."

Someday soon, perhaps, the pastoral setting will be home to the next generation of solar power. Maine Audubon plans to install eight solar panels, including half a dozen 18-foot-tall freestanding arrays.

The panels will cost an estimated $225,000 and may produce 70 percent of the facility's energy.

"We're walking through the door of a really significant journey for us," Koffman said. "That journey will be played out over a few years."

On Monday, Koffman achieved the first step when the Town Council approved a preliminary plan to erect two of the freestanding panels near the farm's entrance off U.S. Route 1 – a stretch of property with deed restrictions that require the town's written approval for construction of "other structures." 

Before that project begins, however, two fixed panels will be installed on the roof of the visitor center next spring. That building, which was constructed in 1996, was designed to accommodate solar panels on its steeply pitched roof, but the vision was delayed when the project ran low on funds, Koffman said.

As for the six freestanding panels, the installation schedule is still a work in progress, as are the locations for four of the panels.

When installed, the freestanding panels will be mounted on pedestals that will allow them to pivot and follow the arc of the sun. Despite their height, Koffman said the two panels near the farm's entrance will not be visible from neighbors' properties. They will be near a barn, which should shield them from view.

"When we worked with the landscape architects we said, 'Whose view-shed are we  affecting?'," Koffman said. "And in the case of these two (panels), really it's nobody."

Additionally, Koffman said he has plans to meet with some of the farm's neighbors to discuss the project.

It's unknown how long it might take for the panels to pay for themselves through energy savings. Koffman said it's a complicated set of calculations that he and his staff are still working out.

He said the project is a natural fit for Maine Audubon, whose mission is to conserve the state's wildlife and wildlife habitat. Weaning off fossil fuels is just another way to accomplish those goals.

"Since climate change is going to severely affect the natural systems, it's kind of a no-brainer that we'd get involved," he said.

Town Councilor Sean Mahoney said he commends Maine Audubon for its plans.

"It's a great project, and I'm sure it will be one of keen interest for those who are coming to the farm," Mahoney said.

Ben McCanna can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or bmccanna@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @BenMcCanna.