Local companies, labor behind Everett Mills solar project

LAWRENCE — The Everett Mills building once harnessed the Merrimack River to power textile and cotton production at the dawn of the 20th Century.

Yesterday, the building owner and a group of business and political leaders unveiled a new 560-kilowatt solar farm on the roof of the historic mill, a nearly two-acre spread that will harness the sun to power tenants inside.

“We’re hoping this attracts businesses interested in clean energy,” said Marianne Paley Nadel, the owner and manager of Everett Mills. At the same time, the solar array will help the building save money on electricity costs.

Much of the project was done by local companies. Soltas Energy, a tenant in the Everett Mills building, will own, operate and maintain the solar array and sell electricity to the building, said Richard Chase, the project manager for Soltas.

Lawrence-based Solectria, which is right across the river from Everett Mills, designed and built the system’s power inverter, which converts the DC electricity generated by the solar panels into AC electricity used inside the building. Tremont Contracting installed the system. The solar panels themselves were made in several countries, including China, Canada and the United States.

Written by Douglas Moser, dmoser@eagletribune.com

“Everything is local, as much as we can,” Chase said. Even the ballast blocks, which anchor the panels in place, were made in Gardner.

In all, about 2,000 panels run across the building’s roof and will generate 560 kilowatts of power, which typically would cover about 40 percent of the building’s power. On the weekends, the electricity the panels generate will go into the local electrical grid. National Grid provides credits to businesses and homes that generate more power than they use.

Teresa Zhao, an analyst with Solectria, said the inverters were made in Lawrence, employing local labor.

Andrew Worden, chairman and CEO of Soltas Energy, said his company did the project with a federal grant that was part of the 2009 federal stimulus act and with a state program that created a market for selling solar energy credits to utilities like National Grid.

Those programs were critical to the project being feasible, he said. While solar panels have been dropping in price recently, solar generation is not quite competitive with other forms of generation.

“In a few years we won’t need them (government grants) because the price is going down,” he said.

Congresswoman Niki Tsongas, D-Lowell, said the project worked because it was “a public-private partnership.”

Soltas has a 40-year contract to generate power for Everett Mills, and has another 365-kilowatt project on Embankment Street. Another larger project in Lawrence is in the nearing completion, Chase said, but Soltas is awaiting inspections from National Grid on that solar array’s equipment.