New solar fields add to College’s supply of sustainable energy

Colby’s new solar panels at the Annex have been quietly producing power for the College over the past four weeks. The 5,328 solar panels take up 10 acres of land and generate 1.5 megawatts of alternating current power, providing for 16 percent of Colby’s electricity usage. “It’s been what we call a soft start,” said Director of Operations and Maintenance Gus Libby. “No big fanfare, no big celebration, because the fencing is still being completed at the site.” The fence has been completed, and there will be a celebration on a date that has yet to be announced.

Prior to the construction of the solar field, 100 percent of Colby’s power was wind power purchased from Central Maine Power Company (CMP), and the College will continue to buy from CMP what the solar panels cannot cover. Planning for the project began three years ago, when the College began to explore options for ways to lower its carbon footprint and generate energy. Colby sent out requests for quotes to several power companies 18 months ago, and eventually decided to work with NRG Energy, Inc., which is based in Houston, Texas, and West Windsor Township, NJ.

An aerial perspective of Colby’s brand-new solar fields, which occupy 10 acres and provide 16 percent of Colby’s energy.

Colby entered into a power purchasing agreement with NRG, in which NRG was responsible for building and maintaining solar panels on Colby land, and the College was responsible for running an electrical line from campus to the site, and for purchasing 100 percent of the power the solar panels produces for the next 27 years. Colby will buy the power at a set rate over that time, giving the College increased financial stability. “They own all the equipment, and they operate it and maintain it, and we just buy the power from them,” explained Sustainability Director Sandy Beauregard.

Colby had the electrical line built and ready to go two summers ago, but construction of the solar field itself was delayed as NRG had to negotiate an agreement with CMP, the area’s most prominent power company. The solar panels were supposed to be completed by January of 2017, but construction did not begin until April.

NRG developed the land to the north and south of the Annex building. In addition to the solar panels and fencing, NRG had to build structures to prevent storm runoff from getting into waterways. Colby’s community garden also had to be moved slightly, and a new road was built leading to the solar field.

Aside from the stability the College gains by having a consistent power source to rely on for over two decades, 

Colby’s motivations for this project also included becoming more environmentally friendly. Colby became carbon neutral in 2013, and is always looking for ways to lower its carbon footprint. The solar panels allow the College to remain carbon neutral while purchasing fewer carbon offsets.

Bowdoin College has a similar facility, with approximately 4,420 solar panels that were installed in 2014. At the time, this was Maine’s largest solar power complex. Both Bowdoin and Colby were pioneers of solar power in Maine, and there is now a complex with 26,000 solar panels in Madison, ME.

Libby and Beauregard said that there is no specific next step to this project. “Right now it’s doing its thing and it’s working,” Libby remarked. Libby said that there is a possibility that the College will choose to install batteries, or to upgrade the solar panels as technology improves, but that neither of these options are essential for the continued success of the complex. The solar panels have a 25 year warranty and will be functional with only a slight decrease in their effectiveness throughout the entirety of the power purchasing agreement. Beauregard said that the College’s main priority going forward is to make the data easily accessible to students and professors who wish to use it for research. All of the data that NRG and Colby collect on the solar panels will be available on the Green Colby website in the near future.

Overall, the project has been a great success for Colby, and is seen by Libby as something for the College to be proud of. “I do see it as a talking point and selling point for students, especially for prospective students, when they come on campus and somebody can say that 16 percent of our energy is generated from a solar field on our property, that’s a pretty powerful thing.”

Colby continues to look forward, considering possible ways in which to expand their sustainability. Mina Amundsen, the Assistant Vice President of Facilities and Campus Planning, said “Colby has been carbon neutral since 2013 and continues to look at ways to reduce our energy footprint, leveraging the campus as a learning laboratory through our planning and operations. The solar array adds another renewable source of energy to the power grid, and is an opportunity for student research.”