Amherst, Hampshire and Smith colleges join energy agreement to increase their use of solar power

  • Solar panels on the campus of Hampshire College. SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • Hampshire College professor Seeta Sistla, an ecosystem ecologist, gives families and alumni a tour of the college's solar arrays in the fall of 2017. Andrew Hart—SUBMITTED PHOTO

Published: 4/23/2018 2:00:05 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Three area colleges have joined a solar-power collaborative, together with two other peer institutions, in an effort to offset their collective electrical needs.

The deal involves Amherst, Hampshire and Smith colleges, Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, and Williams College in Williamstown. In what the liberal arts colleges are billing as the first collaborative purchase of New England solar power by higher-education institutions, they hope to offset 46,000 megawatt hours of electricity per year by purchasing it from a solar-power facility being built in Farmington, Maine. That’s enough electricity to power about 5,000 New England homes each year.

“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,” Hampshire President Jonathan Lash said in a statement. “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.”

The clean-energy company behemoth NextEra Energy is building the solar power facility generating all of that electricity. The facility will be on 600 acres of farmland in Farmington, and is expected to open in 2019.

The colleges say purchasing the power will help them reduce carbon emissions.

Hampshire College has an ambitious plan to make its campus “climate neutral” by 2020, and Smith is working toward reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. That means eliminating emissions, and offsetting the emissions that do exist by actions like planting trees.

Amherst College hasn’t set any quantitative greenhouse gas reduction targets, but is developing a climate action plan.

At Smith, the collaborative purchase of solar power will decrease campus greenhouse gas emissions by 10 percent, according to the college; at Amherst, officials say emissions will drop 17.5 percent.

Hampshire, which already uses on-campus solar panels to generate 100 percent of campus electricity, will use the new partnership to make all of its buildings — both on-campus and off — solar powered.

“We own 15 buildings that are not part of our main campus, and they are not connected to our on-campus solar arrays,” said Hampshire spokesman John Courtmanche, adding that the solar power from Maine could also be used as a backup source for on-campus buildings.

Smith College will purchase around 30 percent of its electricity through the partnership, and Amherst around half of its electricity.

“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,” Smith College President Kathleen McCartney said in a statement.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.

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