Last semester I became aware of two mostly hidden benches by what was then the corn field between the Dakin dorm and Atkin’s. They looked to have at one time been part of the Yiddish Book Center complex, but were now given up to the overgrowth of the no-man’s land between the school, the field, the parking lot, and West Street. It was a great place to go on campus once the weather was nice, away from nearly everything without actually being away from campus. I found myself going there often, usually alone; I never ran into another person there. On the last day of the semester I sat there for a long time, feeling happy and hopeful about leaving the chaos of the spring session behind and just a little sad that when I returned, the whole field would probably be gone. I had been hearing about this solar panel project that was finally going forward after a month of stalling, and I knew it was a good thing, even if it took my park away.
I was wrong, though; the benches are still there, even if you have to step over a short silt fence to get to them. What has changed is the view. Where you could once expect to see either corn or the backside of the Eric Carle museum, there is now row after row of shiny photovoltaic arrays, set to generate the lion’s share of the school’s electricity, starting around January. This is Hampshire’s solar farm, long-rumored, often announced on the school’s website, and now finally manifest in the form of 19 acres of photovoltaic (“PV”) arrays across two large outdoor sites and the roofs of several buildings across campus, including the CSA barn and the Kern Center.
The solar farm has been publicized as Hampshire’s way of shifting to producing 100% of its energy on-site, and the claim holds up: the PV arrays are not a part of that process, but the entire process. Hampshire College will neither own the arrays nor generate the power itself, but will lease the land to its partner, SolarCity, who will then sell the electricity to Hampshire. Under this arrangement, and accounting for the costs the school took on to upgrade the power grid, the solar project is projected to save us $400,000 per year.
The solar farm’s origins can be traced back the school’s 2012 Climate Action Plan, in which Hampshire committed to, among other things, neutralize all burning emissions associated with electrical production by 2022. That plan reflects Hampshire’s participation in the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment, which former president Greg Prince began and which current president Jonathan Lash has taken on wholeheartedly. The plan itself, however, is the work of Hampshire’s environmental committee, a formal committee originally founded by Hampshire students and now consisting of students, staff and faculty.
It was a subcommittee of that same group that, in the fall of 2014, got together to plan a large-scale solar project. This group included Grounds and Facilities directors Larry Archey and Carl Weber as well as Director of Sustainability Initiatives Beth Hooker. After settling on SolarCity (with two other companies, Solar Design Associates and Gehrlicher Solar), different sites were examined through 2015.
It was a long-standing piece of Hampshire lore or misinformation that the corn fields near Atkins and at the western terminus of the woods along Bay Road were not part of the school. The truth is that this land has always been part of Hampshire but has, for perhaps the entire history of the school, been leased to Gordy Cook, of Cook’s Farm fame. This land, however, was not planned for use by the school farm within the next 20 years. The current arrangement is this: SolarCity will operate the PV arrays until 2036, during which time Hampshire will have the opportunity to conduct projects and experiments dedicated to rebuilding the PV sites as agricultural land. (Some of these, for example planting local plants that remediate the soil in the buffer zone, which I call the “bench zone”, are already being done.) At this time, the school will have the option either to continue the contract with SolarCity or to return the land to agricultural use, in which case SolarCity would be responsible for removing all of the equipment and “returning the land to its original state,” said Steve Roof, Dean of Natural Sciences.
We have student involvement in the site selection process to thank for two things. First, the path from the Yiddish Book Center to Atkins survives, and will be revamped with at least a gravel trail and lights around the time construction on the solar project is completed. Students also successfully lobbied for the protection of and access to the Hampshire Tree– the only mascot we have managed to hang on to all these years.
All of these preparations had already been made, and a complete plan created and made to comply with the Amherst, Hadley, state and wetland regulations by the fall of last year. In October, Hampshire announced that the project was starting an impact study with the utility company, Eversource. The article cheerfully predicts that the study will take seventy working days to report. Those who remember the project hanging in limbo last semester may not be surprised to learn that the delays were largely caused by Eversource stalling this impact study (the purpose of which was to evaluate the impact the solar arrays would have on the power grid) and negotiating the cost of upgrading the grid with the school. Now that the process is finally over, we can look forward to the time when the wiring is completed in the PV arrays, at which time the utility company will again have to come and inspect the whole system.
The solar farm is of course only one part of the school’s environmental projects, which also include that living-building-that-generates-its-own-heat-and-water we all know and love, the Kern Center, and the wildlife meadows that the school has begun to mow and water less frequently. The other major agenda item called for by the Climate Action Plan by 2022 is for the school to neutralize carbon emissions created by heating. To this end, the school has begun replacing the HVAC systems in many of the older buildings. However, the Kern Center or solar farm of heating at Hampshire doesn’t yet exist, and always, you have the opportunity to help make it happen.
And put it near a bench.