The Farmington Solar Project — a 490-acre solar array in Maine funded by Williams, Amherst, Smith, Hampshire, and Bowdoin through a contract with energy company NextEra Energy — became operational in late October, Provost Dukes Love announced in an all-campus email on Nov. 1.
The endeavor is the largest solar project in New England to date and is “expected to generate approximately 140,000 megawatt hours (MWh) in renewable energy during its first year of operation,” Love wrote. Energy from the solar farm will be incorporated into the New England power grid, and the College’s share of the overall energy produced is equivalent to 90 percent of the College’s purchased electricity, though it will not necessarily go directly to powering the College; in this sense, the solar project will function like an environmental offset. Love added that the project is a significant step toward one of the College’s as-yet-unmet 2020 sustainability goals — sourcing 100 percent of purchased energy from renewables.
Zilkha Center Director Tanja Srebotnjak wrote in an email to the Record that the Farmington project “supports local jobs — 500 temporary and 1-2 permanent jobs were involved in this project — reduction of local and regional air pollution from fossil fuel power generation, and the regional clean energy transition.”
Without the financial support of Williams and other colleges, NextEra would have been unable to complete a project this expansive, according to Love. “Our deep involvement in this effort through a consortial approach enabled NextEra to increase their planned size for the facility and thus empowered Williams and our partner schools to make a meaningful contribution toward decarbonizing the region as a whole,” Love wrote in the announcement email.
Ben Platt ’23 said he was ambivalent about the College’s partnership with NextEra, given the firm’s involvement in financing a campaign against a powerline that would import hydropower from Canada to the Northeast.
According to The Wall Street Journal, NextEra spent 20 million dollars in support of a Maine ballot initiative to oppose the hydropower transmission line, which would have primarily served Massachusetts energy customers. Maine voters passed the initiative on Nov. 3. Renewable energy advocates said that NextEra had funded the initiative due to the threat that the powerline posed to its already established nuclear facility and oil-burning power plant in New England.
“I think my main concern … was that Williams was helping NextEra to launder its reputation,” Platt told the Record. “That [NextEra] could say, ‘We’re helping to transition to clean energy, we really care about climate change,’ and yet at the same time they are also spending tens of millions of dollars to prevent lots of people in Massachusetts from getting access to clean energy.”
In response to Record requests for comment on NextEra’s involvement in opposing the powerline, Love and Srebotnjak each responded, “I don’t have any information about this.”
Platt said that, despite his concerns about NextEra, he acknowledges that the College needs a partner in these sustainability projects and ultimately supports the Farmington project.
Sustainability Communications Intern at the Zilkha Center for Environmental Initiatives Quentin Funderburg ’25 told the Record that he thinks the Farmington project is a good way for the College to reduce its carbon emissions. “As a carbon offset, I feel like it is one of the best forms that we could possibly have since it doesn’t necessarily rely on another country’s expense and labor or putting others in some sort of work,” Funderburg said. A carbon offset is reducing carbon emissions to make up for carbon emissions elsewhere.
Gus Demerath ’25, however, pointed to what he sees as hypocrisy in the College’s refusal to announce divestment from fossil fuels while funding renewable energy projects. “Seeing how [Williams] flaunts its progressiveness and sustainability, it’s funny seeing the College’s reluctance to push the conversation forward or even make progress,” Demerath said. “Carbon offsets [are] the bare minimum.”
In speaking more generally about the College’s efforts to combat climate change, Platt emphasized that the College’s main focus should not necessarily be on reducing emissions, but supporting research. “In the grand scheme of things, colleges’ emissions are minimal compared to the emissions it could reduce through its research capabilities,” Platt said. “Our standing as a place that can do academic work that can be translated into practical results… [that] is where there is the bang for the buck so to speak.”
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified one of the partner colleges as Mount Holyoke rather than Hampshire College.