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A small New England college goes 100 percent solar

Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., will soon be home to a 'living building' and become the only residential college generating 100 percent of its electricity from solar panels.

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    A artist's rendering of the interior of the R.W. Kern Center on the campus of Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass. The 17,000-square-foot center will host high-tech classrooms, admissions and financial aid offices, and social space. It will be only the ninth building certified as self-sustaining in the United States.
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In western Massachusetts sits a small liberal arts college doing big things in the way of sustainability.

Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., will soon be home to a "living building" and the only residential college generating 100 percent of its electricity from solar panels.

 [Editor's note: The original version of this story should have stated that Hampshire will be the only residential college (i.e. with on campus student housing) to derive 100 percent of its electricity from solar panels.]
 

The Living Building Challenge is a rigorous set of standards that requires net-zero energy, waste, and water systems, as well as sustainable, local construction materials. Only eight self-sustaining buildings in the world have achieved this certification. Hampshire’s R.W. Kern Center, a 17,000-square-foot campus center that will host high-tech classrooms, admissions and financial aid offices, and social space will be the ninth.  

“This building wears our culture on its sleeve,” says Jonathan Lash, president of Hampshire since July 2011. “The Living Building Initiative challenges people to build buildings that leave no footprint, that push the boundaries of what is possible, and that promote positive social and ethical standards.

“What if, in 10 years, 20 percent of the nation’s buildings met something like this standard?" Mr. Lash asks. "Think of the impact and the quality of people’s interactions with each other [because] physical spaces define how we interact.”

Designed and built by two local firms, the center will cost $9 million to construct but will end up essentially paying for itself with the money saved in its operation.

“A building of this size would typically use 7,000 gallons of water a day; we estimate the Kern Center will use 150,” Lash says. “And honestly, if we’re saving $500,000 dollars, why not?”

But the project is much more than a way to save money.

“For us it’s both the result and the process,” Lash says. Students have been involved from the start, from attending the design firms' pitch meetings to creating mathematical models of the biological treatment systems.

Lash, who previously served as president of the World Resources Institute and as Vermont’s environmental secretary and commissioner, is deeply committed to sustainability and and reducing climate change.

“The more I learned, the more it seemed [climate change] was going to be a defining issue,” he says.

But meeting with Hampshire students changed the way he wanted to contribute.

“I spent my time flying around the world spending time with people like Al Gore, the chairman of GE, and the president of Brazil, working on issues that I care about deeply," Lash says. "I had no thought about leaving, let alone doing something I had no previous experience in, but I was persuaded to meet with the search committee.

"The students were really well prepared and aggressive, challenging all of my ideas. Forty-five minutes into the interview I thought to myself, ‘I have been working on sustainability issues for 30 years, and ... if anything is to change, it would happen with kids like these.' ”

Lash’s passion, coupled with the initiative of students, has paid off in real change at a grass-roots level. In order to build the center, the college eliminated a roadway and parking lot in the center of campus, converting the space back into meadows and pathways. It also stopped mowing about 15 acres of lawn after students approached Lash with a meadow-restoration project.

“Students have been tracking the return of wildlife, and we’ve been able to save about $30,000 a year,” Lash says. A win-win.

Student leadership and involvement is a driving force behind sustainability initiatives all around campus. A student-administered revolving fund allows students to pitch ideas for and invest in energy-reduction projects. Recently, students from the dance and theater departments used the fund to secure state and utility grants to install a new LED lighting system for the performing arts stage.

“The lighting system would make professional theaters jealous,” Lash says. “And the energy savings are so good. It was a really cool experience to help students see what sustainability means in their own field.”  

LED lighting isn’t the extent of Hampshire’s commitment to sustainable electricity. In conjunction with SolarCity Inc., Hampshire will install 19 acres of solar panels next year. SolarCity will also give Hampshire Tesla batteries with 10 kilowatts of storage to smooth out solar electric generation peaks and valleys during winter months.

The college is also making changes in its dining facilities.

“We have a big farm, and we spend a lot of time thinking about food, about how to live sustainably with nearly 8 billion people [on earth]...," Lash says. Thought is given to where food comes from and the carbon footprint it leaves.

"We produce a lot of our own vegetables and also buy locally to support the community,” he says. Help also comes from Hampshire alumni in the food industry, including the founder of Stonyfield Farm, a maker of organic yogurt, and the founder of Applegate Farms, a producer of organic and natural meats.

Commissioned in 1970 as a place for radical innovation, Hampshire College seems to be living up to its purpose.

“I want our students to experience a culture that is always challenging itself to become sustainable,” Lash says. “A lot of students are enthusiastic, but everyone agrees that what we’re doing feels right and matches our values.

“The most important thing to me is that the students are constantly thinking, ‘Yes, you can make these decisions, and it actually makes a difference.’ ”

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