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Solar collaboration energizes a new era of sustainability in higher ed

University Business, June 2018
ENERGETIC ALLIES—Hampshire College, which operates a solar farm on its Massachusetts campus (above), has joined a coalition of four other small colleges to buy power from a new solar farm in Maine.
ENERGETIC ALLIES—Hampshire College, which operates a solar farm on its Massachusetts campus (above), has joined a coalition of four other small colleges to buy power from a new solar farm in Maine.

You think there’s not enough sun in cold, dark Maine to generate solar power? You say solar panels belong in the deserts of the Great Southwest? Actually, solar panels operate more efficiently in cooler weather, and Maine gets more sun than Germany, known worldwide as a solar powerhouse.

Five New England colleges have teamed up in a unique partnership, choosing a site in Farmington, Maine, for a solar-power farm that will reduce carbon footprints on each campus and show students sustainability in action.

Amherst, Hampshire, Smith and Williams in western Massachusetts, along with Bowdoin in Maine, have combined their buying power to support the facility that’s slated to open next year.

Powerful performances

How energy use at each campus will change with the solar-power farm:

Amherst College: 10,000 megawatt-hours of energy will cover half its annual electricity use.

Bowdoin College: Half the annual power use at the college, which is now carbon neutral, will come from solar energy.

Hampshire College: Backup energy source for campus that is 100 percent solar-powered.

Smith College: Facility will provide the remaining 30 percent of electricity usage not generated on campus.

Williams College: Greenhouse emissions will be cut by 25 to 30 percent per year.

“It really seems as if everything that’s happening in the country now to implement renewable energy is happening at the local or institutional level,” says Jonathan Lash, president of Hampshire College, which already gets all of its electricity from its own 15-acre solar array.

It will use the new facility as a backup. “In the future, there will be a lot more of these projects—our students will get to understand how they work,” adds Lash, who is slated to retire in June 2018 after spearheading the project.

The facility will create enough electricity each year to power about 5,000 New England homes. By banding together, the colleges have ensured the project will be financially viable for its operator, Florida-based NextEra Energy Resources. Smith will buy about one-third of its energy from the facility as it aims to reach zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.

The initiative marries the necessities of campus operations with Smith’s academic mission, says Dano Weisbord, director of sustainability and planning.

“Students experience a cognitive dissonance,” Weisbord says. “They learn in class that climate change is bad yet they see that we use a lot of fossil fuel to run a campus.”

Faculty and students from all the colleges will have access to solar facility data to study and track performance. The project also serves as an example to each campus community of the regulatory and political roadblocks that sometimes stymie renewable energy projects, says Amy Johns, director of the Zilkha Center for Environmental Initiatives at Williams College.

These types of hurdles are one reason four Massachusetts schools are investing in a project in Maine.

“This is an opportunity to show what we, as a society, need to do to have the renewable energy revolution we need to have,” Johns says. “People think the barrier is financial, but even when you’re willing to spend money, it can be a real challenge to get a project done.”