Farmington and RECs
The Farmington Solar Project—its official name is the New England College Renewable Partnership (NECRP)—is a consortial solar photovoltaic (PV) development of Amherst, Bowdoin, Hampshire, Smith, Williams colleges in partnership with renewable energy developer NextEra and a local dairy farmer in Farmington, Maine. The project involves 76.5 MegaWatts (MW) of ground-mounted solar PV generation capacity, a 25 MW share of which the colleges have contracted to offtake for 20 years, including Williams’ share of 8.6 MW (11.33% of the total). The project began production in late October 2021 and in the case of Williams College, contributes Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs) for approximately 73% of our current purchased energy. A REC is the attribute of 1 MegaWatt hour (MWh) of electricity that is generated by eligible clean, renewable energy sources such as solar PV, wind, certain hydroelectric power installations and others (the eligibility criteria vary across states).
With the start of operations of the Farmington Solar Project, Williams has taken a substantial step towards its climate action goals, specifically, goals calling for renewable energy sources for 100% of its purchased electricity needs and substantially reducing campus emissions, including from electricity consumption. By investing in clean, renewable power generation such as Farmington, several smaller campus solar PV systems owned by the college, and through additional RECs purchases we have matched our electricity use with renewables since FY21.
It is important to understand the way RECs work. As a measurable green attribute (1 REC = MWh of clean, renewable energy), they can be severed and sold separately from the electricity itself. Thus, active RECs markets have developed across North America, Europe and other parts of the world. A renewable power developer or project owner can decide whether to hold the RECs themselves and allocate them to their own electricity use or they can decide to sell them. Each REC can only be allocated against electricity use once, otherwise repeated claims would lead to double, triple, quadruple, etc. counting against electricity emissions and thus undermine honest efforts to mitigate climate change. Registries for RECs, such as NEPOOL GIS for the New England region, keep track of them and serve as validators. Williams does not retain the RECs for all solar PV systems on campus, in several cases: for some systems we purchase the electricity from the project developer (often for 20 years at favorable rates), while we own other systems outright and hence also the RECs. Either way, the college is helping to increase the amount of electricity in the grid that is produced from clean, renewable energy sources, makes solar PV more visible, and allows students to learn about their operation through the data dashboards we maintain.
Another important aspect to consider about RECs is that they refer to 1 MWh of clean, renewable power, not GHG emissions as a carbon offset does. The actual amount of GHGs avoided through the generation of a REC is location-specific: it depends on the fuel mix used in the local electricity grid where the project is located and the locally applicable renewable energy policies, in particular the existence and specifics of states’ Renewable Energy Portfolio Standards (RPS), which require electricity suppliers (e.g., utility companies) to source certain amounts of electricity from renewable sources, either by generating themselves or by acquiring RECs. A more aggressive RPS typically leads to stronger demand for RECs and thus to growth in renewable energy generation capacity. Massachusetts, for example, has an RPS that requires 30 percent renewable energy by 2030, while California’s requires 100 percent by 2045. States without or with weak RPS can still see growth in renewable energy projects, but that growth is typically due to favorable conditions (such as abundant wind in Texas) that make such projects profitable even without the opportunity for additional revenue from the compliance RECs markets (there is a lot more detail and complexity in the RPS and Clean Energy Standards, in general, and more information about RPS is available here). As part of its climate action goals, Williams will continue to explore and invest in renewable energy for its operations, including on campus solar PV.