HIRAM, Maine — Two rows of gleaming photovoltaic panels outside the former Hiram Elementary School are about to get busy.
On Tuesday, the founders of GrandyOats, a growing granola and trail mix company, unveiled the 100 percent solar-powered infrastructure. When the company moves this month from its former site in an old dairy barn in Brownfield to Hiram, GrandyOats will be New England’s first net-zero food facility. Full operation at the new location is expected by the end of the year.
“We thank the sun for being here today to help us fulfill our dreams,” said Nat Peirce, flanked by his business partner, Aaron Anker, and 288 panels positioned to leverage the power of the sun.
The owners bought the school, abandoned in 2009, in the winter of 2014 to meet demand for their hand-made, organic products. Wanting to stay in the area where most of their 20 employees live, they set their sights on the available school on 8 acres along the Saco River. With natural light beaming down over former playing fields, their decade-long dream to go solar became feasible at last.
“This is not a marketing stunt,” said Fred Greenhalgh, digital marketing manager for Portland’s ReVision Energy, who installed the system that could power 17 homes. “They are living it.”
Although Maine doesn’t have endless, warm, sunny days, the state’s solar resource is one of the strongest in New England.
“Usable solar energy here is comparable to Houston, Texas, and just 10 percent less than sunny Florida,” said Greenhalgh, who added that cold, sun-filled days generate more solar energy than hot ones.
“This proves that you can do it in Maine,” he said.
When the company creates more solar power than it needs, it accrues credit with the power company. So during snowy, dark days, GrandyOats will tap the grid just like anyone else, but its excess solar production is applied against the power it consumes.
“Over the course of the year they will have produced 100 percent of their electric demand with the solar,” Greenhalgh said.
The panels will generate enough electricity to produce 1.2 million pounds of granola and snacks annually. With a combined capacity of 80 kilowatts, every aspect of the facility, from electric ovens to heating and cooling, will be powered from the sun.
By switching to green energy, the company moves from kerosene and propane — that means dwindling electricity bills.
“This insulates us from world pressures. It feels good that we are generating our own power on site,” Anker said. “It makes sense.”
GrandyOats, available in 40 states across the country, will have three times the space in its new facility and will be able to double its production. The company just entered the California market and announced a new line of gluten-free granola, which is expected to hit shelves in the second quarter of 2016.
By putting the sun to work, GrandyOats hopes to be a model for other companies.
“Businesses that have the long view can control energy costs, and that’s good for the environment,” Greenhalgh said. “There are very few things that are awesome for the environment and awesome for the wallet.”
When the company moves into the refurbished 12,620 foot space, complete with a gluten-free room and new warehouse constructed off the former school cafeteria, GrandyOats will be the largest employer in Hiram, a town of 1,600.
“We are lucky to have them,” Hiram Selectman Harold Gillman said. “Because we are so far out here, it’s refreshing to have a business with such forward-thinking insight. It’s great use and a great product. It couldn’t be better.”