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January 19, 2016

The Kern Center, currently under construction, is expected to open in April, 2016 (Lydia Emmanouilidou/WGBH)

Hampshire College has a long streak in activism. In the 1970s, the college was the first to divest its endowment from apartheid South Africa. In 2013, it became one of the first to cut financial ties with big oil and big coal. This winter the school is going even further, reducing the school's carbon footprint and ostensibly lowering its energy bill.

In April, Hampshire plans to open a ‘living building’ that meets some of the most rigorous environmental design standards, including net-zero energy waste and water systems. 

“None of it is rocket science, but it's actually the latest science,” project manager Carl Weber told us while giving us a tour of the building, currently under construction. 

Hampshire College officials say the new 'living building' will house the admissions and financial aid offices, classrooms, a coffee bar, and a campus store (Courtesy of Hampshire College)

The $10.5 million self-sustaining campus center will house the admissions and financial aid offices, classrooms, a coffee bar, and a campus store.

When Hampshire was estimating what it would cost to put solar panels on the roof of this 17,000-square-foot building, the college turned to energy companies for proposals. 

“When we got the bids it looked so encouraging that we thought, ‘Why don't we be ambitious here?'” said Hampshire College President John Lash.

Instead of creating solar energy for one building, Hampshire officials decided to come up with a plan that would harness enough energy for all of its buildings. 

Related: Amid Calls to Divest, Schools Explore Green Revolving Funds

“We will install about 20 acres of solar collectors – about 8,400 panels,” said Lash.

Of course, it can get pretty cloudy and gray in Western Massachusetts, and President Lash admits that even college presidents can't rejigger the solar system and move the sun closer to campus. So the college has a backup plan. 

“We’ll still be connected to the grid because nights and February we won't be producing any power, but in the summer we’ll produce far more than we use, so 100 percent is on an annualized basis.”

In other words, Hampshire is going to bank power in the summer and then withdraw it in the coldest months. The college estimates this will slash its energy bill in half, and President Lash guarantees that the move to solar won’t result in letters home asking parents for support.

“This project, over its life, will save us on the order of $10 million dollars," Lash said. "This is not a luxury. This is a really smart decision.”

Environmentalists agree.

"It's a shrewd strategic investment for them that they're going to reap great returns with virtually no risk, unlike, say, the stock market,” said Mark Orlowski, executive director of the Boston-based nonprofit Sustainable Endowments Institute, which encourages colleges like Hampshire to invest in sustainable energy projects.

Compared to other colleges and universities, Orlowski says, Hampshire's commitment to renewable energy is impressive.

"When you look at the number of campuses that have 20 or 30 percent or more of their energy coming from onsite sources, it's a pretty small number," said Orlowski.

That’s, in part, because a renewable energy project can be daunting to cash-strapped, risk-averse colleges But, Orlowski says, what many colleges don’t realize is that they can actually afford to pull it off.

"Even if they don't have capital, there are financial structures that help an institution to actually be able to put up a large solar system that can power half or even all of their campus with zero up-front cost," said Orlowski.

Though funding may not present a challenge, some colleges may face regulatory challenges. For example, Mount Holyoke College -- just down the road from Hampshire in South Hadley -- is located in the service area of a municipal utility, so it’s far more difficult for the college to make this kind of shift. Still, Orlowski predicts, we're going to see hundreds of colleges and universities follow Hampshire's lead and go 100 percent renewable.

Back at Hampshire, President Jonathan Lash says the solar project aligns with his alternative college’s founding mission: to explore the boundaries of higher education.

“I think that’s still our role. We should still be pushing the edges,” said President Lash. 

Pushing the edges of the higher education universe, even if he can’t rearrange the solar system.

Earlier: Divestment Is More Difficult Than Most Think

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