Amherst to Go Half-Solar by 2019

Amherst, along with Bowdoin, Hampshire, Smith and Williams, has formed the New England College Renewable Partnership, a collaborative contract to purchase solar electricity from a solar farm in Farmington, Maine. Starting in 2019, Amherst will annually receive 10,000 Megawatt hours (MWh) from the farm, enough to power around half of its total electricity use and all of its purchased energy.

The facility, a 25 Megawatt hour (MWh) array, will produce enough energy to offset 46,000 MWh annually among all five colleges. Amherst is currently powered through fossil fuel energy. Once it switches to solar energy, the college will continue to obtain approximately half of its electricity use from an on-campus combustion-based power plant. An energy assessment predicts that this shift to 50 percent solar electricity will reduce the college’s carbon dioxide emissions by over 3,200 metric tons. This reduction will decrease the school’s greenhouse gas emissions by 17.5 percent. However, as Amherst’s Director of Sustainability Laura Draucker said, “17.5 percent is not 100 percent. We still have a ton of work to do to get even more renewables on and off campus.”

This collaboration marks the first joint renewable energy purchase among higher education institutions, according to a press release by the Office of Environmental Sustainability (OES).

According to Draucker, the project began over two years ago, when Hampshire president Jonathan Lash suggested that the Five-College Consortium use funds previously set aside for a joint renewable energy project among the Consortium.

Representatives from each of the five colleges and Williams decided to use the funds to hire an energy consultant to assess what sort of project would successfully increase renewable energy-use for the five-college schools. Later, Mount Holyoke and UMass Amherst abandoned the project, and Bowdoin joined the group.

Draucker explained that the addition of Bowdoin helped strengthen the group’s purchasing power, as each of the schools have small energy demands and do not individually need an entire solar grid. By increasing the number of schools in the partnership, the group was able to raise the total demand for renewable energy. Bowdoin was a particularly strategic partner because of its proximity to the farm.

While the project has significant implications for the college’s carbon footprint, it also brings educational opportunities. The contract requires that all involved colleges, including their student bodies, have access to energy collection data, as well as the opportunity to visit the site.

Now, local experimentations with renewable energy can focus on other factors, rather than scale and magnitude. “We capture a big chunk of solar energy with this project,” she said. “It will allow us to try closer, on-campus renewable projects.”

The introduction of this contract corresponds with the OES’ Climate Action Plan, which sets an overall vision for the school to reduce reliance on fossil fuels. “To transition away from fossil fuels, we are going to need to electrify or find liquid fuel options,” Draucker said. “We are going to need to do much more.” She added that some of these other steps to help transition away from fossil fuels include purchasing more off-site renewable energy and exploring ground-source heating and cooling systems.

The project is based on long-term rather than immediate benefit, as the school will not begin receiving energy from it until late-2019 and will remain in contract with the solar farm for 20 years.

President Biddy Martin said in a comment over email that the college is looking forward to Amherst’s involvement in the renewable energy initiative.

“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,” Martin said. “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.”