Sustainability on Campus: UMass Amherst Takes Solar To the Next Level

Benjamin Aufill is Sustainability Communications Manager at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, a bustling campus that serves 22,000 undergraduates each year and provides housing for 12,500 of them. The university has recently committed to installing 5.5 MC (DC) of solar on various locations around its sprawling 1,450-acre campus.

“I’m pretty sure there will be solar on top of everything eventually,” said Aufill in an interview in late summer 2016.

Solar arrays in front of and behind the UMass Amherst Champions Center. Credit: John Solem / UMass Amherst.


Renewable Energy World toured the campus just as the foundations were being dug at Lot 44, a parking lot that will eventually boast 2.5 MW of solar, the largest of the eight projects. Brightergy served as EPC and developer and project manager Jeff Lassonde explained who was working at the site on the day of the visit.

“Out here we have three different sub-contractors working right now. Two guys doing excavation, six guys doing steel erection, eight guys doing foundations, 14 guys doing electrical and then the tree of us [project managers],” he said, adding “And that’s here. We have three other projects going on at the same time on other buildings.”

Installing solar in eight different locations on one campus is no small undertaking. At its peak, the project employed some 70 people.

Lassonde laid out the “parts and pieces” as well.

“Both parking lots are LG 365 modules,” he said. Lassonde said he selected the LG module because it was the highest efficiency on the market at the time. The rooftops are using JA Solar 315 modules. All the inverters come from Solectria. For the carports, Brightergy selected Solaire Max Rack and the rooftops use PanelClaw’s Polar Bear racking system. The fine arts center (FAC) uses a custom engineered racking system that Brightergy designed itself to hold the ET Solar panels.

On the day Renewable Energy World visited Umass Amherst, Lot 44, the largest of the eight solar projects was under construction. Credit: Jennifer Runyon.

Looking at to the large CHP plant that UMass Amherst uses to generate the majority of its electricity and all of its heat. Credit: Jennifer Runyon.

“They wanted it to look sleek and uniform so it has a black frame and a black backsheet,” explained Lassonde, adding “so it will look pretty good.”


For Kansas City-based Brightergy, the UMass Amherst project is the largest one is has completed. Part of the reason that it won the competitive RFP, according to Byron Woodman, Account Manager with Brightergy, was the educational component that the company could bring to the project.

“We have a really strong platform for younger students that matches core curriculum,” he said, explaining that a former teacher is on staff. “We have a strong focus on internships as part of this [project] where the students can actually come and work with our team and get real life experience,” he said.

Woodman explained that the project in front of the athletic center will be quite visible to students.

“We’re doing an open learning space where students can actually come down there with their classes and professors and staff and actually see where the energy is produced, where it comes down, how it connects into the grid and the real-time production,” he said.

The solar array on the roof of the UMass Amherst Computer Science building. Credit: Jennifer Runyon.

In addition, Brightergy is providing $41,000 in educational funds for UMass Amherst students and internship opportunities for four students over the next three years.

And that’s important to a school like UMass Amherst that offers 300 courses on sustainability, 25 undergraduate majors and 15 graduate programs.

Woodman said, “[The project] heightens everybody’s awareness of the potential for solar and then it makes it an exciting space whether you are an engineer, a designer, or a communications major.”


There were no up-front costs to the university for the solar arrays. Brightergy negotiated a PPA with ConEdison, which will sell the electricity generated by the solar arrays to the university at a rate well below market. As the project owner ConEdison is able to take advantage of ferederal and state tax credits. The solar arrays will save the university $89,000 on electricity in the first year, and the savings will grow to average $310,000 per year and total $6.2 million over 20 years, according to Brightergy.

ConEdison and Sol Systems, a solar energy finance and investment firm headquartered in Washington, D.C., are the project finance partners. Competitive Energy Services of Portland, Maine, provides energy-related consulting services to the campus and was involved in the review and competitive bidding of the program.

The university will continue to generate approximately 78 percent of its energy at its Combined Heat and Power plant on campus. The new solar power will replace about one-fifth of the remaining 22 percent, which is purchased from Eversource, at a basic saving of about 7 cents per kilowatt-hour.

The savings are greater, however, because the solar power can be applied to peak-time usage, which carries higher rates. “This will cut peak usage charges in half,” said Raymond Jackson, director of the UMass Amherst Physical Plant.

Solar on the rooftop of the UMass Amherst computer science building. The campus is nestled in beautiful western Massachusetts and surrounded by mountains. Credit: Jennifer Runyon.

The savings for the university are guaranteed for 20 years; although the actual rate may rise, the difference between the university’s cost and commercial rates will remain, Jackson said. Other project benefits include a reduction in emissions from the regional electric grid by the equivalent of about 31,456 metric tons of carbon dioxide over the 20 years. If the university were to become owner of the project, it would be credited with the emissions reduction, which would advance its long-term goals for sustainability. “In year 10, we have the ability to buy the units at a reduced cost,” Jackson said. “By 2050, we want to be carbon neutral.”

University Renewable Energy Programs Worldwide

University of Massachusetts Amherst is taking a leading role in developing renewable energy in the U.S. northeast but many other universities are taking similar initiatives. The list below, while not exhaustive, offers a glimpse of some other notable universities.

University of California San Diego boasts a university-wide microgrid that generates approximately 92 percent of the electricity used on campus: including a 1.5-MW solar array, a 2.8-MW fuel cell and a 300-kW solar water-heating system.

University of Nottingham in the UK has set itself ambitious carbon targets in its Carbon Management Plan. The plan’s initiatives include solar PV, solar hot water and biomass boilers.

University of Queensland in Australia has a 1.22-MW PV array that generates electricity for the St. Lucia campus in Brisbane and underpins research projects in diverse areas including physics, economics and sustainability. The university also conducts next-generation battery storage research.

Stanford University in California will receive more than 50 percent of its electricity via a 67-MWp solar array in Kern County that is expected to be online by the end of 2016. In addition to that off-site array, the university added solar PV to 16 buildings this summer. The solar expansion is part of the Stanford Energy System Innovations (SESI), which includes a heat recovery system completed last year for the heating and cooling of campus buildings. Together, the heat recovery system and the solar energy resources will reduce Stanford’s greenhouse gas emissions by 68 percent.

California State University Long Beach announced a 4.8-MW carport this summer that will offset approximately 15 percent of the university’s load while giving students and faculty a shady spot to park on campus.

While not a university, Dublin School, a small boarding school in New Hampshire is installing a 400-kW solar PV array to offset a significant portion of its electrical load.

The University College Cork in Ireland calls itself the World’s first green campus. The college has a wind turbine, solar PV and a solar water heating system in addition to multiple other sustainable initiatives.

Colby College in Maine achieved carbon neutrality in 2013 by implementing a diverse strategy of efforts including over 12 LEED-certified buildings on campus, two of which use geothermal systems. The college is planning to build a 1.9-MW solar array in the near future.

The University of Ottawa’s Centre for Research in Photonics is a solar cell characterization research facility that boasts an outdoor solar test site.

Did we miss one? Let us know in the comments section. -JR

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