Published December 17, 2020 by Rebecca Goldfine

Nearby Solar Array Will Supply Bowdoin with Lots of Maine-Made Power

The 17,000-panel solar field on Bowdoin land in Brunswick will push the College past its goal of purchasing 100 percent of its electricity from Maine-based renewable sources.
Site of new solar farm

As part of its effort to reduce global carbon emissions and limit the worst effects of climate change, Bowdoin is partnering with a solar energy developer to create a new five-megawatt solar farm close to campus.

Sol Systems, based in Washington, DC, will finance the solar project and be the owner and operator. Bowdoin is supplying a 19.5-acre parcel on the former Navy base for the array and will be the sole buyer, or "off-taker," of the electricity. The College will also retain the renewable energy credits (RECs) that come with the creation of green energy.

With the new Sol Systems project and Bowdoin's participation in other renewable-energy ventures around the state—including a consortium to support thirty-three statewide renewable energy projects and a 75-megawatt solar project in Farmington—the College is on track to use only renewable energy generated in Maine by the end of 2021.

Site of new solar farm.
The Sol Systems field will be built on a parcel of land conveyed to Bowdoin with conditions by the federal government when the Brunswick Naval Air Station closed in 2011. The College paid fair-market value for the land in 2018, which voided these conditions.

Consulting company Competitive Energy Services (CES), of Portland, Maine, coordinated the project for Bowdoin, overseeing the request-for-proposals, solar vendor selection, and contract negotiations. CES President and COO Andy Price ’96 praised the College for its climate efforts. "Bowdoin has taken a very important step toward achieving its own carbon reduction goals and is also helping to accelerate Maine's transition to 100 percent renewable electricity," he said.

Changes the state legislature made last year to Maine's solar-energy and net-metering rules (which determine how renewable energy is supplied to the electricity grid) have opened the door to the construction of both smaller- and larger-scale solar projects around the state. The ceiling for smaller projects is now five megawatts, which refers to the maximum electricity output on a sunny day. 

The legislation is designed to speed the state's transition to renewable electricity, with the ultimate goal of pushing Maine to 80 percent renewable electricity by 2030, and to 100 percent renewable electricity by 2050. Currently, 42 percent of the electricity in the state is derived from renewable sources like hydro, solar, and wind power.

The new solar project was approved by the Brunswick planning board this month by a vote of five to two. Construction on the ground-mounted array should be completed by next December, according to Bowdoin Sustainability Associate Director Keisha Payson. 

sandplain grasslands
Sol Systems has committed to removing a little over an acre of pavement from the old taxiway (seen in photo above) and reseeding the site with native plants.

At the recent public meeting, Bowdoin's senior vice president for finance and treasurer Matt Orlando said that Maine's goals to address climate change are ambitious, laudable, and worthy of support. "Without hundreds of participants across Maine doing energy-metering projects, the state won't meet its goal," he continued. "We're hoping to set an example and hoping that businesses and institutions follow our lead and help the state achieve something really remarkable both within the next decade and by 2050."

While the majority of the board approved the project, the Sol Systems project has raised some concerns by conservationists who object to its location on sandplain grasslands. These prairie-like habitats are uncommon natural communities found along the East coast that contain rare plants and animals, like dry-land sedge, the grasshopper sparrow, and upland sandpiper.

Sol Systems has listened to these environmental concerns and made adjustments to the design of the solar array, Payson said. The panels will be higher than standard height, for instance, to allow native grasses to grow tallerThe project layout was also altered to avoid impacts to wetlands and two rare plants. To prevent erosion, a layer of straw, rather than hay, will be spread over the topsoil to minimize the introduction of seeds that could compete with native plants. 

Anna Noucas ’11, Sol System's senior manager of business development, said that her team worked closely with project stakeholders to avoid disturbing the wetlands and to minimize impact to wildlife habitat. “As a Bowdoin alumna myself, I was taught the value of the common good and I am proud that this project, including these mitigation efforts, fully embraces those values and takes steps to further my own commitment to the common good," she said.

Students inspect the grasslands
Students in a biodiversity and conservation science class inspect the sandplain grasslands around the air tower.

Bowdoin students have also been involved with the process of developing a management plan for the site. Payson said both Sol Systems and Sustainable Bowdoin welcomed the chance to collaborate with classes. “This interest was something we were excited about incorporating into the project, as it is a great real-life learning opportunity for our students,” she said. 

Biology and Environmental Studies lab instructor Shana Stewart Deeds led the academic study with students in a fall ecology course taught by Assistant Professor of Biology Patty Jones. Last spring, Deeds' students in an environmental science class also assessed possible sites for the array on the old base with the GIS expertise of environmental studies lecturer Eileen Johnson.

"Students thought about trade-offs between green infrastructure and green-energy development and the natural and cultural history of the area," Deeds said. "They thought carefully about any impacts the array would have and looked at sites that would mitigate those impacts."

The state's Maine Natural Areas Program consulted on the project, and members of the planning board and public had opportunities to share perspectives on how Bowdoin could both generate power and steward the rare natural area, Deeds noted. "Community input and discussion can be crucial on these types of projects," she said.

Bowdoin students ended up recommending the area near the plot that was, ultimately, selected for the array. They chose it because it was next to Bowdoin's other six-year-old solar field and the airport runway, it was easily accessible, and it would not require development or deforestation on the intact ecosystems of the area, Deeds said.

This semester, Deeds' ecology students looked at management practices that would limit environmental impacts and might even be beneficial to the grassland habitat and to the pollinators and endangered species found there.

"Sol Systems really encourages student input and is excited to get student recommendations. They are also excited to have students involved in the process as they both install the array and engage in long-term research and management," Deeds said.

"I am excited Bowdoin chose a company that is so open to working with students, because that is not always the case," she continued. "Since there are not many research studies on native plant and grassland management under solar arrays, there’s an opportunity for student and faculty research here in conjunction with Sol Systems, Maine Natural Areas Program, or other interested stakeholders.”

Renewable energy graph
100 Percent Renewable at Bowdoin

The graph above shows where Bowdoin's electricity offsets will come from when all of the renewable projects the College has joined are completed and online. The percentages are estimates, and at this point total more than 103 percent. Bowdoin anticipates using more electricity in the future as it converts to an electric vehicle fleet and heats more campus buildings with electricity.

  • The 75-megawatt Farmington solar project: Once this one is up and running, this college consortium-backed project will supply roughly 44 percent of Bowdoin's total electrity use.
  • The 5 megawatt Sol Systems solar array will almost double the amount of electricity Bowdoin sources to solar, to about 88 percent.
  • The CES Consortium completes the picture, covering the final 14 percent of Bowdoin's electricity needs. "It's the last piece," Payson said.

(The 'Tesla' line refers to 4,420 solar rooftop systems on Farley Field House, Sidney J. Watson Arena, and Greason Pool, and the ground-mount installation on three acres owned by the College at the former Navy base. Bowdoin did not purchase the RECs for these projects, so cannot offset its electricity use with them.) 

*The graph below provides another visualization of Bowdoin's electrical use and offsets.

Graph of Bowdoin's renewable energy system