Five of the nation’s leading liberal arts colleges have formed a pioneering collaborative that will allow them to offset 46,000 megawatt hours per year of their collective electrical needs with electricity created at a new solar power facility to be built in Farmington, Maine. The partnership represents the first collaborative purchase of New England-generated solar electricity by higher-education institutions.
Amherst, Bowdoin, Hampshire, Smith and Williams colleges are partnering with a subsidiary of NextEra Energy Resources, a leading clean energy company, which will construct a utility-scale solar power facility that annually will create enough 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. The facility is expected to open in 2019.
The New England College Renewable Partnership is innovative and impactful in several ways:
• It facilitates the development of additional solar electricity generation in New England.
• It will have a significant sustainability impact, moving each of the five campuses closer to their climate-action goals.
• It helps each school manage costs by “locking in” the price of electricity for the next 20 years.
• And, most importantly, it provides market access that would not have been available to individual institutions, offering a scalable model that other colleges and universities can follow.
Competitive Energy Services acted as adviser to the colleges.
The Impact at Amherst
At Amherst, which has already reduced greenhouse emissions by more than one-third during the past decade, the use of the solar power generated at the new facility represents another step toward the college’s goal of achieving carbon neutrality.
“Amherst is delighted to be part of this important partnership, which illustrates how changes in sustainability practices at our institutions can have a larger impact,” said Biddy Martin, president of Amherst. “The involvement of four other highly regarded institutions in New England allows all of us to move forward with our climate action plans and multiplies the effect overall. It also sends an important message that every institution and every individual can be an agent for positive forward movement on the urgent challenge of sustainability.”
Through the partnership, Amherst will purchase 10,000 megawatt hours (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 partnership 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 group spent more than two years carefully searching for the right project that will generate renewable energy in our region, and allow us to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions in a cost-effective, collaborative way,” said Laura Draucker, Amherst’s director of sustainability. “The Farmington project meets our aspirational goals, including our desire to purchase project-specific Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs), which is not common in New England. We hope this partnership will inspire other colleges and universities to consider joining forces with like-minded institutions to achieve scaled environmental and financial benefits.”
The Impact at Bowdoin
For Bowdoin, which today is announcing that it has achieved carbon neutrality two years ahead of schedule, the NEC Renewable Partnership represents a second pioneering expansion of clean solar energy in Maine. It follows the 2014 development with Solar City of what was then the state’s largest solar array, with rooftop systems on the college’s major athletic facilities and on college-owned land at the former Brunswick Naval Air Station.
“Today at Bowdoin, we celebrate the dual milestones of carbon neutrality and this promising and innovative solar project with our partner colleges from Massachusetts, but we are far from done,” said Bowdoin College President Clayton Rose.
“In the coming year, we will be working with members of our campus community to put forward ambitious new plans at the college focused on greater sustainability achievements and environmental stewardship. In the meantime, it is a point of great pride that Maine will be home to this new source of clean solar energy and, that for the second time in recent years, Bowdoin is helping to establish the largest solar facility in our state.”
Close to half of Bowdoin’s annual electricity consumption will come from solar energy when the Farmington solar complex comes online. This does not include the existing 1.2 MW solar facility hosted by the college since 2014. The Farmington solar complex will reduce Bowdoin’s own-source greenhouse gas emissions by about 11 percent.
Given the new facility’s location in Maine, Bowdoin officials anticipate that the solar partnership may also provide educational and research opportunities for Bowdoin students and faculty who will soon be working together in the new $16.5-million Roux Center for the Environment slated to open on the Brunswick campus in the fall of 2018.
The Impact at Hampshire
“Across the U.S., in the absence of federal leadership, much of the action on climate change and reducing emissions is coming locally, from communities and institutions joining together,” said Hampshire President Jonathan Lash, a global environmental leader who was president of World Resources Institute and served two U.S. presidents on national environmental councils. “Five independent, private colleges partnering for a major green-energy purchase sends a signal that we’re taking responsibility for the effects of our actions.”
Since 2011, Hampshire has led a Sustainability Initiative to transform its operations, curriculum, food systems and culture to further its goal of sustainability. Building on a decades-long practice of environmental science, studies and stewardship, the college has been aggressively acting on the initiative and becoming more sustainable, and this partnership with four peer colleges across New England advances Hampshire further toward its goals. To cite other progress, Hampshire today is:
- Supplying 100% of campus electricity using on-campus photovoltaic systems, on an annualized basis; these on-campus systems are rated at 4.9 megawatts DC output;
- fully divested from fossil fuels;
- promoting sustainable design as the home of higher education’s largest certified Living Building, the R.W. Kern Center, the 17th building certified under the most rigorous green-building design standard; as well as the home of a second center built to the same standard, the Hitchcock Center for the Environment;
- increasing the use of its farm and local sources to supply campus food;
- operating more efficiently after establishing a Sustainable Revolving Fund to increase investment in and implement energy-saving renovations;
- reducing emissions and saving money by converting mowed lawns back into natural meadows;
moving closer to achieving its Climate Action Plan to make the campus climate neutral by 2022.
“This is the challenge facing our students as they reshape the workforce in the next 20 years: how to turn the U.S. economy into a low-carbon economy,” said Lash, who will retire in June. “It may seem like a distant challenge, but for our students, it’s very real and immediate. Spending so much time on campus, they learn from not only what we teach, but how we choose to live. We’re working together with them to address this serious challenge.”
Hampshire’s incoming president is Miriam E. Nelson, outgoing deputy director of the Sustainability Institute at the University of New Hampshire.
The Impact at Smith
The NEC Renewable Partnership significantly expands on Smith’s existing commitment to renewable energy purchases for Smith, says Smith College President Kathleen McCartney. “This is a groundbreaking demonstration of the first collaborative purchase of New England-generated solar electricity by higher-education institutions,” she notes, “but I hope it will not be the last. This initiative demonstrates that by working together, we can make a substantive, positive impact on our environment -- at the institutional level, the regional level and beyond.”
Michael Howard, Smith’s executive vice president for finance and administration, says the partnership is a significant shift into renewable energy for the college, as Smith will purchase about 30 percent of its electricity through the partnership. This is all of the electricity that the college currently does not produce on site. (Solar panels on Smith’s campus already provide the equivalent of 2 percent of Smith’s electric use.) The Renewable Partnership will reduce college greenhouse gas emissions by 10 percent, bringing Smith significantly closer to its goal of achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.
The NEC Renewable Partnership will be a template for anticipated future electricity purchases, as the
scale of the project -- and the contract model -- enable significant progress toward environmental sustainability at minimal cost.
In addition, the partnership will provide educational opportunities for Smith students.
“This partnership demonstrates the substantial value that can be created through institutional collaborations,” Howard said. “When we are able to work together toward common objectives, we can be more innovative -- more impactful -- than we can be on our own. And those benefits accrue to all members of our communities.”
The Impact at Williams
The NEC Renewable Partnership enables Williams College to further its commitment to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions as well as advance toward meeting its two most recent sustainability goals. Set in September 2015 by the college’s Board of Trustees, these goals are to reduce emissions to 35 percent below 1990 levels and purchase sufficient carbon offsets to achieve carbon neutrality—both by the end of 2020. The solar commitment is the latest in a series of steps toward these goals, including
investing in new projects to lower energy use in existing campus buildings, as well as investing in sustainable design, building practices, and systems for all new and ongoing construction projects, among numerous other initiatives aimed at reducing carbon emissions.
“The Farmington solar complex makes it possible for Williams to procure renewable energy and the related environmental attributes at competitive rates, both of which would not be attainable without this collaborative partnership,” said Matt Sheehy, associate vice president for finance at Williams College. “Williams has an obligation to reduce its carbon footprint in substantive ways, both on campus and beyond, and we are invigorated by this partnership with our friends in higher learning to invest in achieving net carbon neutrality,”said Williams College’s Interim President Tiku Majumder.
The NEC Renewable Partnership creates opportunities for Williams to continue to invest in other sustainability projects and opportunities as they arise while moving the college toward its 2020 emissions goals. “We knew from the start that we would need close to 100 percent renewable electricity to meet Williams’ most recent sustainability goals,” said Amy Johns, director of the Zilkha Center for Environmental Initiatives at Williams College. “And we are thrilled both with this particular project and with the chance to work closely with our peer institutions.”