Hampshire College going fully solar with 15,000-panel installation

August 15, 2016
Todd Holland, projects and operations manager of the Solar Energy Systems at Hampshire College speaks during a ground breaking ceremony for the largest-known on-campus 19-acre solar arrays Thursday, August 4, 2016 in Amherst.

Todd Holland, projects and operations manager of the Solar Energy Systems at Hampshire College speaks during a ground breaking ceremony for the largest-known on-campus 19-acre solar arrays Thursday, August 4, 2016 in Amherst.

Todd Holland, project and operations manager of solar energy systems at Hampshire College, speaks during a groundbreaking ceremony for an on-campus 19-acre solar array Thursday in Amherst. Gazette Staff/Andrew Whitaker – Buy this Image

Workers with SolarCity construct solar arrays for the use at Hampshire College for the largest-known on-campus 19-acre solar arrays Thursday, August 4, 2016 in Amherst. Gazette Staff/Andrew Whitaker—Andrew J. Whitaker – Buy this Image

One of the two fields that SolarCity will construct solar arrays for the use at Hampshire College for the largest-known on-campus 19-acre solar arrays Thursday, August 4, 2016 in Amherst. Gazette Staff/Andrew Whitaker—Andrew J. Whitaker – Buy this Image

AMHERST — If he were speaking in Appalachia instead of on the grounds of Hampshire College, the Holyoke mountain range behind him would probably be gone, said Steve Roof — the tops blown off for the natural resources within.

But Roof, dean of the school of natural science at the college, was speaking from a place of safety for sustainability and environmentalism, in front of a field where rows and rows of blue solar panels would soon be installed with the rolling green hills as a backdrop.

“I think it’s going to look really nice,” Roof said. “Blue will be the new green.”

With Thursday marking the groundbreaking ceremony for installation of 15,000 solar panels on its campus, Hampshire College had cause to celebrate, becoming the first U.S. residential college to go 100 percent solar. The panels will be spread across approximately 19 acres of land, completely powering campus electricity by generating up to 4.7 megawatts of energy — enough to power about 500 American homes, according to a press release from the college.

At the ceremony, college President Jonathan Lash said the project makes sense for the school, despite its small size and limited resources. The campus has a long history of sustainability, he said, and not only do the solar panels make sense environmentally; they also make sense fiscally, saving the college up to $400,000 a year, he said.

“I can’t tell you how much I love coming to this poor little college and getting it done,” said Lash, who previously served as chairman of Bill Clinton’s Council on Sustainable Development. “This is about justice. The world is warming.”

Project partner SolarCity owns the arrays, and Hampshire will pay SolarCity for the electricity it uses at a negotiated rate that will still yield the anticipated savings.

One solar-power system will be installed in the field at the corner of Route 116 and West Bay Road, college spokesman John Courtmanche said. The second system will be established on a Hadley field deeper into the center of the college campus.

The systems are expected reduce emissions of carbon dioxide by about 3,000 metric tons annually, according to the press release. The project is expected to be completed by year’s end.

Each system, to be constructed by SolarCity, will also contain a 250-kilowatt battery-storage system, from which the college can draw energy on days when the sun isn’t as strong.

There will also be times when the solar-power systems generate more energy than the college needs, Courtmanche said. That extra energy will flow into the community electricity grid so that on cloudy days, Hampshire College can draw extra needed energy back out.

Project manager Todd Holland also said that, typically, when snow piles on top of solar panels, some of the panel can break through, and the panels will naturally heat the precipitation, causing it to slide off.

Lash said he hopes the project gains national attention and inspires others to begin to use solar energy more.

Not every college is lucky enough to be located in a town willing to be so supportive of innovation, he said. Hampshire College, with the help of Amherst and Hadley, is a small place taking control, saying, “We can do this.”

“This is local energy produced from the sun. This is community energy,” Lash said. “This is a natural step for us.”