At the time of its founding, Bowdoin was the easternmost college in the country and the first to see the sunrise. Now, in a pending collaboration between the College and California’s SolarCity Corp., Bowdoin stands to power the majority of its athletic facilities with these same rays.
The proposed solar complex would be the largest in Maine, offsetting about 8 percent of the College’s annual electricity usage and generating 1.6 million kilowatt- hours (kWh) of power, according to President Barry Mills. The system would be sited on land the College acquired from the former Brunswick Naval Air Base as well as on the roofs of Farley Field House and Watson Arena.
The Board of Trustees signed off on the proposal last Friday, though it now awaits approval from local, state and federal governments including the U.S. Department of Education, which was furloughed for much of the past few weeks.
Mills said that the College also awaits town approval on the construction of the line that would carry power from the panels on Base land to an electric meter on campus.
“We’re optimistic, but we need to talk to Central Maine Power,” said Senior Vice President for Finance and Administration and Treasurer Katy Longley. “We have different regulatory hoops we need to go through before this is done.”
SolarCity would own the complex, financing all costs and maintenance while Bowdoin would purchase the solar power produced. According to Mills, the installation cost falls in the $2 to 4 million range, though SolarCity has not yet released exact numbers. The company was unavailable for comment.
“At the very beginning, or for probably 12 years, we’re not—based on what we predict electricity prices to be—going to save money, per se, we’re just buying from a green source,” said Longley.
Currently, the school pays an average of nine to 14 cents per kWh for electricity; Longley said that costs would likely stay constant under the new solar structure.
Though the current proposal is for a 20-year contract, Longley said that the College would have the option of either buying the system or extending it up to 30 years if the facility is performing well.
Mills estimated that once the project is approved, it could be finished in time for the current sophomore class to see it completed.
“I think even the junior class will see some activity, maybe not completely,” he said.
Currently, the largest solar power facility in the state is at Thomas College in Maine; Bowdoin’s proposal would be eight times greater than Thomas’s solar resources.
The College’s proposal comes at the halfway point of Bowdoin’s efforts to become carbon neutral by 2020, which was formulated in 2007.
“Bowdoin has long been considering solar energy as one of the many ways to attain our carbon neutrality goal. At the same time, we have been contemplating what the best uses of the Naval Air Station lands might be. It seemed natural to combine these two ideas,” said Chair of the Board of Trustees Deborah Barker ’80.
If the proposal is approved, solar panels will occupy three of the 127-plus acres Bowdoin owns of the former air stations land, which is less than a mile from campus. This will be the first official construction there, though the College is brainstorming plans for walking paths and sustainability-focused projects such as gardens and educational facilities, according to Longley.
Though the College considered several different solar providers, negotiations began with the San Mateo-based SolarCity in July. SolarCity stocks are up over 20 percent this week, after the company announced that it anticipates to install 80 percent more systems in 2014 than it did in 2013, according to its website.
This year, the Sierra Club ranked Bowdoin 108 of 118 colleges in its “Cool Schools” sustainability rankings. The College received 108.40 out of 249 possible points for its energy systems.
Though 35 percent of the Maine power grid is currently made up of renewable sources, the College currently offsets the remaining 65 percent through investments in hydropower and wind farms throughout the state.
In 2012, the Orient reported that Bowdoin’s on-campus natural gas steam plant produces 109,500 kWh of electricity per year, which is 6.8 percent of the annual electricity the solar panel facility could produce.
“The real issue for the school in getting to carbon neutrality is how do we keep you warm in the winter? Given that we have to heat the buildings, that is the significant hurdle,” said Mills. “The [solar panels] are good. This is helpful. This will help us get to our goal. But more technological advances are going to be necessary to get to all of our goal in an convenient way.”