Solar panels

Sometimes the best way to get a great deal is to get together with friends and buy in bulk. 

That’s the strategy behind a pioneering deal announced today between Amherst College and four peer institutions.  

The move—which has been dubbed the New England College Renewable Partnership and will involve a solar power facility that will be built in Farmington, Maine—is expected to help the colleges offset 46,000 megawatt-hours (MWh) per year of their collective electrical needs. 

The deal not only drastically reduces Amherst’s carbon footprint, but will allow the College to replace approximately half its annual electricity use with renewable energy, moving the school one step closer to the goal of carbon neutrality. 

By joining together, Amherst, Bowdoin, Hampshire, Smith and Williams colleges have created the first collaborative purchase of New England-generated solar electricity by higher-education institutions.

These five colleges will work with NextEra Energy, a leading clean-energy company, whose Maine-based solar power facility, when it opens in 2019, is expected to create enough annual electricity to power about 5,000 New England homes. 

Each of the colleges will purchase zero-carbon electricity from the Maine site to reduce carbon emissions from campus electricity use.

Jim Brassord, chief of campus operations, noted that Amherst had explored options for large-scale, on-campus solar installations, but that each of those initiatives faced challenges. By partnering with NextEra, Amherst could greatly accelerate its timeline of switching to renewables. 

The unique project, though, became possible only when the various institutions decided to work together. 

“What we determined is that, collectively, as a group, to develop a solar project, we had economies of scale in the marketplace,” he said, adding that, as a result of their bulk-purchasing power, the group got an “overwhelmingly strong response” when they requested proposals from solar- and wind-project developers.

At Amherst, which has already reduced greenhouse emissions by more than one-third over the past decade, the use of the solar power generated at the new facility represents another step toward the college’s goal of carbon-neutrality.

Through the partnership, Amherst will purchase 10,000 MWh of renewable energy, or approximately half of its annual electricity use—and nearly all of its purchased electricity. (The other half is derived from a combined heat and power plant on campus.) This will enable Amherst to reduce its CO2 emissions by more than 3,200 metric tons, decreasing its greenhouse gas emissions by 17.5 percent. 

The College will also have the option to retire the renewable energy credits it receives from the project, creating a true carbon emission reduction.

Laura Draucker, Amherst’s director of sustainability, called the project “one big chunk” in the long-term effort to power the campus with renewables. 

“We would have never been able to do it only on campus,” she said. “We know we need to do an off-campus project. So this is great. We were able to do one with our peers that allows us to own the carbon credits.” 

 “We still have to do more,” Draucker added. “I’m excited that this is a great first step.”