climate change

With New Solar Field, Vt. College Gets Closer to 100% Renewable Energy Goal

Middlebury College wants to achieve that major milestone by 2028

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A private liberal arts college in Vermont says it's getting closer to its goal of powering its buildings in ways that address the threat from climate change.

A 30-acre parcel in Middlebury will soon be home to 29,000 solar panels built on trackers that are able to follow the movement of the sun. The panels will provide roughly a third of the electricity needs of the Middlebury College campus, the school said.

"Within five or six years of this, we will be breaking even," said Laurie Patton, Middlebury's president, of the initial cost of the project.

Patton said Middlebury views combatting the climate crisis as an "ethical imperative" and believes it has one of the boldest approaches anywhere in higher education to do its part.

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By 2028, Middlebury's on track to have all its energy for heating, cooling, hot water, and electricity -- yes, 100% of it -- come from renewable sources, not generated by fossil fuels.

"We can set the example," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, describing his admiration for Vermont organizations taking bold steps to reduce their fossil fuel consumption. "Everybody can talk about it, but when you actually do it, that's what's important."

A biomass plant on campus already burns locally sourced wood chips, and on a nearby dairy farm, the northeast's largest anaerobic digester breaks down food scraps and cow manure, creating renewable natural gas.

The college has other solar fields, too, and is winding down its investments in oil and coal.

The Vermont college changed a dormitory's name because of its eugenics-promoting namesake, John Mead.

These steps have other institutions across the U.S. reaching out to research if their own multi-faceted, locally grown approaches would work for them, Patton said.

"The key thing, though, for us is not to say, 'Hey, we're doing it right, you should do what we do,' but, 'Hey, how can we be a resource, because we know your solutions are going to look different,'" Patton said in an interview Tuesday.

The school's leader said close partnerships with utilities and green energy developers have made their plan, Middlebury Energy2028, possible.

"People notice what Vermont is doing," said Mari McClure, the CEO of Green Mountain Power.

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GMP will install battery storage at the new solar field, helping lower power costs for all customers, not just the college, by taking pressure off the grid during peak energy usage. On those peak consumption days, power is the costliest and dirtiest to produce.

"We need more utilities across the country embracing this type of innovation and we need to do it faster," McClure said.

In keeping with the campus' goal of having all its energy sources be fossil fuel-free, it won't maintain that new solar field using gas-powered lawnmowers, the school said. Rather, it has an initial plan to bring in flocks of sheep to mow the field.

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