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Next Steps for Bowdoin’s Solar Energy Project

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Proposed sites of proposed solar PV installation at Bowdoin, highlighted in yellow

When SolarCity finishes installing more than 4,500 solar panels at Bowdoin — possibly by the end of summer — the College will be home to a solar-energy system nearly eight times larger than any other in Maine. The project, however, will be about the same size as college or town systems in other states, according to SolarCity.

Two SolarCity representatives, John Conley and Matt Gitt, were on campus Wednesday to talk about their company and its plans for Bowdoin. Conley described his publicly traded, California-based company as a “solar utility” that builds and maintains commercial, residential and public projects in 14 states across the country. This will be its first project in Maine. “Hopefully [this project] could foment a little movement here and we’ll see more of a market in Maine,” Conley, SolarCity’s development director, said. “Bowdoin is taking real leadership to bring clean solar energy to Maine — this is an important step for the state and the region.”

Bowdoin’s solar arrays will produce about eight percent of the College’s annual electricity usage. The project will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 33.4 million pounds over 20 years.

The College will seek all necessary local and state approvals to have SolarCity install solar panels on Bowdoin’s Sidney J. Watson Arena, William Farley Field House and Leroy Greason Pool as early as spring. The next step will be to build a three-acre solar field on land the College has acquired at the former Brunswick Naval Air Station. Together, the rooftop and ground-mounted solar installations will generate approximately 1.6 million-kilowatt hours of electricity a year.

SolarCity will finance, build and maintain the multi-million dollar project. In December, Bowdoin signed a power-purchase agreement to buy all of the electricity from the company’s solar installations at a locked rate for 20 years. “Just like a utility, we’re charging for energy,” Conley said. “But we make sure your utility bill is at or below the old utility rate.”

At SolarCity’s presentation in Moulton Union, faculty, staff and students posed questions about the project, asking about such matters as educational opportunities for students, regulatory issues and what happens when the solar field is under two feet of snow. (The panels, which are mounted 2.5 feet above the ground, tend to stay warm, Conley said, and will melt off any snow cover.)

Katy Longley, Bowdoin’s treasurer and senior vice president for finance and administration, addressed the question about the project’s research and teaching potential. “One of the reasons we went forward with this plan is because of its educational value. It’s not just about saving money,” she said. SolarCity will make available to Bowdoin faculty and students the data it collects every 15 minutes with its “robust monitoring system,” Conley promised. Students could, for example, analyze the effects of weather on energy generation, or study the economic impact and policy implications of turning away from fossil fuels. “There will be ample data to dive into,” he said.

Longley said that if the planned solar power complex works out well, the College will consider expanding its solar capacity in the years to come. “We will start with eight percent of our electricity,” she said. “After we see how this goes, we’ll work on more solar as time goes on.”

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