Hampshire College has begun constructing the largest campus solar power array in New England. It is an ambitious project that is part of the small liberal arts college’s plan to someday have a carbon-neutral campus.
The project will put 15,000 solar panels on two fields on the campus covering about 19 acres to generate 4.7 megawatts of electricity. The project includes a battery storage system. Because there will be excess power to return to the grid, Hampshire College will be able to boast that 100 percent of its electricity will come from renewable energy.
"It raises the question -- why not? If you can do this in snow country in western Massachusetts why shouldn't we be doing this," said Hampshire College President Jonathan Lash.
Lash at a groundbreaking ceremony for the project Thursday said the campus community is extremely proud of its commitment to renewable energy and to educating its students about sustainability.
"We feel some moral obligation since we are part of the North American economy that has been a major contributor to global climate change to do our part in reducing emissions," said Lash.
Lash said the college first looked at putting in a large solar array four years ago, but the cost was prohibitive. Since then solar panels have become much cheaper and more efficient. After deciding finally to pursue a solar project it took two years to plan, obtain the necessary permits, and negotiate contracts.
"This has been an incredible experience for me. I spent 15 years beating my head against brick walls in Washington trying to get politicians to address climate change and here I am at this little poorly resourced college in western New England and we are able to just do it. That feels really good," said Lash.
The solar power project is being built and will be operated by SolarCity. The college will purchase electricity from SolarCity at a fixed rate, which at current electricity prices is estimated to save the college $400,000 annually, according to Lash.
SolarCity senior project manager Miles Hovis said the college is taking a bold step.
" It is rare you find an institution that walks-the-walk to the extent Hampshire has," said Hovis. " I have been really impressed with the way they've focused on it and the initiative they've put behind it."
Hovis would not comment on the cost of the project. Officials said it would not be possible without Solar Renewable Energy Credits from the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources. The credits were created to help Massachusetts reach emission reduction targets required under a 2008 law.
" Each of these projects is incremental toward reaching those goals and this is a big increment," said Hovis.
The towns of Amherst and Hadley will both receive payments in lieu of taxes for the solar project.
Chelvanaya Gabriel, a Hampshire College staff member who served on the planning committee for the project, said there was some concern about putting solar panels on agricultural land.
"We are not taking it away, it is more like a crop rotation, if you will," said Gabriel. " It can be reverted back depending on what the needs of the college are."
College scientists and students plan to study the impact the solar power project has on the land.
Construction of the project is expected to be completed by the end of the year.