Williams College Steps In To Power Town Solar Project

Jul 28, 2016

Williams College has stepped in to help complete a solar array project that has languished in Williamstown. Under the agreement with the town, Williams College will invest about $6 million to construct a 1.9-megawatt solar array on a capped landfill.

Williams’ Media Relations Director Mary Dettloff says it fits with the college’s climate change response plan announced in 2015.

“Williams College made a commitment to find local or regionally renewable energy projects that we could support, and this is a great example of one right here in our backyard that we can support financially and get it up and off the shelf and running again,” Dettloff said. “It’ll benefit the town greatly by supplying electricity for all the municipal buildings, the streetlights, the fire district building and also for the facilities of the regional school district.”

The project has stalled the past few years because of infrastructure upgrades that made it economically unfeasible. Town Manager Jason Hoch says Williams’ investment is integral.

“As it went through its review process, we found one of the areas that we were going to have a challenge was paying the full cost of interconnection and upgrades to the existing National Grid system,” Hoch said. “It reached a point where we couldn’t rework the numbers to make the project cost effective from purely the town’s point of view.”

The college is seeking a tax equity partner that would co-own the solar array and provide $2 million toward the project during the final stages of construction. The previous agreement involved the town, BrightFields Development and primary developer SolarCity.

“What the town brings to the table is the site, the landfill, and the commitment to take all of the power generated from the site for municipal uses,” Hoch said. “What ends up happening here is that the college basically swapped in for SolarCity.”

Williams has selected EOS Ventures as development consultants for the project. The renewable energy company is an enterprise of the Fairbank Group, which runs Jiminy Peak and other ski resorts in the region. Hoch says there is only upside for Williamstown taxpayers although he doesn’t have a final number as far as savings are concerned.

“It’s a lease agreement so we’re buying the power from this, but at a much lower than market rate price and we will be sharing in the net metering benefits too,” said Hoch.

Hoch says the solar array will be ready to operate by January 2017 under the timeline set by the Massachusetts Legislature for the next round of Solar Renewable Energy Certifications. He adds that since the project is not new it already has the necessary state approvals.

The $6 million comes from Williams College’s endowment. It’s part of the plan announced in 2015 after students, alumni and staff urged the school to completely divest its $2.3 billion endowment from the top 200 fossil fuel companies. Williams did not follow those exact wishes, saying it would require restructuring of how it invests and decrease the endowment’s returns. Williams President Adam Falk explained the decision in September 2015.

“Our judgment was that both symbolically and practically we could have a bigger effect by investing than by divesting,” Falk said. “That was the direction that we chose to go.”