Middlebury College closer to 100 percent renewable energy goal with new solar project

Groundbreaking at Middlebury College

Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont joined representatives from Middlebury College, Encore Renewable Energy and Green Mountain Power (GMP) last week to break ground on a new 5-MW solar project that will provide the college with about 30 percent of its total electricity usage. The collaboration will assist the college in reaching its goal of 100 percent renewable energy by 2028 while expanding local, renewable energy production in Vermont. Middlebury College will buy 100 percent of the electricity generated at the site as part of its ambitious Energy2028 initiative.

Following a blessing from Don Stevens, chief of the Nulhegan Band of the Coosuk-Abenaki Nation, the groundbreaking event continued with remarks from the speakers. 

“For many years, along with other Vermont leaders, I have been spotlighting the economic benefits to come with going ‘all-in’ on investments in clean energy and green infrastructure,” said Senator Leahy. “As we grapple with the consequences of the climate crisis, it is clear these are not just economic benefits. It is also an economic imperative. I am so proud to see that urgency being demonstrated so clearly right here in Middlebury.

“The solar project will allow the College to receive clean electricity from a new, locally generated source,” said David Provost, Middlebury executive vice president for finance and administration. “With this groundbreaking, we are further diversifying our energy mix as well.”

Encore, the project developer, will complete the construction of the array in 2022. Located about two miles from campus on 30 acres of Middlebury College-owned land off of South Street Extension, the project will include 29,000 panels mounted on single-axis trackers that will follow the sun east to west over the course of the day.

The agreement between Encore, GMP, and Middlebury will provide the College with local, cost-effective, renewable energy and allow Middlebury to retain and retire the renewable energy credits from the system. The innovative arrangement eliminates any cost shift to the utility’s customers.

The College meets the other 70 percent of its electricity needs with electricity generated by its biomass plant, other local solar energy production sites, and power from GMP’s grid, which is 100 percent carbon-free and 68 percent renewable, on the way to becoming 100 percent renewable by 2030.

“This is a great example of how our community partners make us stronger. This new resource will offer a rich source of study and exploration for our students, staff, and faculty,” said Middlebury College President Laurie Patton. “We are grateful to the Middlebury Select Board for seeing the value of this project and for our partners, Encore Renewable Energy and Green Mountain Power.”

“We’re excited to be part of this collaboration that offers a cost-effective solution as we help create a closer, more connected energy system that empowers customers,” said GMP President and CEO Mari McClure. “We plan to add storage to this solar project, which will directly help lower costs for all customers as we use the stored energy from the solar project to reduce power demand from the grid during high energy use days. Solar and storage projects like this are already saving our customers millions of dollars, and growing this innovative work is a key part of an affordable energy future for Vermont.”

Initially, flocks of sheep will provide vegetation management at the site. Eventually, the site will feature pollinator-friendly plants and shrubs that will attract an increased number of bees, butterflies, and other insects that will help support crop production in the Middlebury area. To fulfill the state requirements regarding grassland birds, the College will dedicate up to 95 acres of its land to be managed as a habitat for bobolinks and other grassland birds.

“This project is a great example of how large customers like Middlebury College can collaborate with their electric utility on carbon-free energy solutions,” said Chad Farrell, CEO of Encore Renewable Energy. “It is also a model for the expanding benefits that a solar array can offer, including pollinator-friendly ground cover and a location for grazing farm animals, as well as a potential interactive learning opportunity for students. We’re thankful for the partnership that allowed us to bring this project from an ambitious idea to reality for an institution that is actively educating the leaders and builders of tomorrow’s energy systems.”

“It’s wonderful to see this solar project move forward,” said Brian Carpenter, chair of the Middlebury Select Board. “Middlebury College and Encore were great to work with—while making an effort to meet a clean energy goal they also took into consideration the five-megawatt array’s imprint on wildlife, the local landscape, and the neighborhood.”

“Middlebury’s leadership and this solar project serve as a model for Vermont. If this pandemic has taught us anything, it is that our resiliency as a State depends on innovative partners coming together to find solutions to our greatest challenges, climate change being top among them,” Lt. Gov. Gray said, “I hope we see more collaboration and solar arrays like this one in communities across Vermont in the years ahead.”

Once the solar array is constructed, it will produce about 50 times the energy required annually to power Forest Hall, a Middlebury College residence hall that houses 155 students. The project will provide a carbon-free energy source equivalent to the following:

  • Energy to power 800 average Vermont homes per year 
  • Energy to power 1,400 average passenger vehicles per year 
  • Energy to offset or avoid 7,000,000 pounds (3,500 tons) of burned coal per year

The new solar project will join eight other Middlebury College solar arrays on and off-campus that comprise just over one MW.

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