The Sustainable Campus (Trends and Innovations)

A Solar Partnership

Williams College in Williamstown, MA, is committed to protecting and enhancing the natural and built environment in which its students, faculty and staff learn, work and live. These efforts rely on the involvement of all members of the campus community. The centerpiece of the college’s sustainability efforts, the Class of 1966 Environmental Center — open 24/7 to students, faculty and staff — is undergoing certification to become a Living Building; basically, greener than green. Other initiatives in practice on the 450-acre rural campus include waste disposal and recycling programs; building and transportation policies; food and water procurement, production and usage efforts and guidelines; and emissions and energy improvements…including solar energy.

Going Solar

In 2004, Williams installed its first solar array on top of Morley Science Center. Since then, the college has installed a number of other arrays — both ground-mounted and roof-mounted arrays at the Library Shelving Facility, at the Weston Field Athletic Complex, on top of Sawyer Library and on and around the Class of 1966 Environmental Center. All these arrays are connected to the power grid.

As William’s commitment to sustainability strengthens and flourishes, campus-led projects are branching out to include the surrounding community as well.

As one example, Williams College and the Town of Williamstown have signed an agreement that moves forward a previously stalled solar energy project that will provide low-cost, renewable energy to town facilities, the fire district and the regional school district.

The project aligns with the college’s climate change response plan goals to support local and regional renewable energy projects.

Establishing a Partnership

Under the terms of the new agreement, Williams will invest approximately $6 million to complete construction of a 1.9-megawatt solar array on a capped town landfill. The Town of Williamstown began the project in 2014 with a commercial developer but after initial designs and studies were completed, the need for major infrastructure upgrades rendered the project economically unfeasible for the developer. After speaking with Williamstown Town Manager Jason Hoch, the college began exploring ways to assist the town. As a result of Williams’ lower return requirements and commitment to local renewable energy, the college was in a position to get the project back on track.

“We had reached a point where the installation as originally planned was no longer financially viable and faced the difficult prospect of abandoning the project altogether,” Hoch says. “Williams’ interest came at precisely the right time to allow us to proceed with this important solar facility that will benefit all of Williamstown.”

According to Hoch, the solar array will be ready to operate by January 2017 under the timeline set by the Massachusetts Legislature for the next round of Solar Renewable Energy Certifications. He adds that since the project is not new it already has the necessary state approvals.

Williams will provide the initial $6 million investment to construct the project. The $6 million comes from the college’s endowment. It’s part of the plan announced in 2015 by Williams College President Adam Falk after students, alumni and staff urged the school to completely divest its $2.3 billion endowment from the top 200 fossil fuel companies. The college is seeking a tax equity partner that would co-own the solar array and provide $2 million toward the project during the final stages of construction.

Williamstown will use energy from the array to power all of its municipal buildings and the fire district building and streetlights, as well as facilities of the regional school district. The discounted clean power will provide both savings and price stability to the town’s energy budget by locking in a long-term price for electricity at less than half the price the town currently pays. The town will also receive no fewer than 20 years of structured property tax revenue from the landfill, a property that otherwise generates no tax revenue for the community.

Comprehensive Benefits

“We’re delighted to partner with Williamstown in restarting this solar project,” says President Falk. “As the college moves forward with a wide-ranging set of initiatives to help address the global climate change crisis, we’re pleased to be able to invest in renewable energy right in our own community.”

EOS Ventures of Hancock, MA, has been selected by the college to serve as development consultants for the project. With substantial experience in developing and financing renewable energy projects throughout the region, EOS will undertake full oversight of all development and construction activities associated with the project.

The landfill solar project now qualifies for various state incentives thanks to recent changes in Massachusetts law that have expanded net metering and encourage the development of renewable energy projects serving towns and other municipal entities throughout Massachusetts.

This article originally appeared in the September 2016 issue of College Planning & Management.

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