Students Take on Renewable Energy Projects

Several Williams students are working to help the college meet its commitment to reducing its carbon footprint by 35 percent of its 1990 levels by 2020. Two of the college’s Renewable Energy Interns spent the last year on a program that will deeply impact the town of Williamstown—a program the students hope will carry over to the campus in the near future.

No later than this summer, all town buildings will receive their electricity from the solar array on top of the capped landfill on Route 7. The construction phase of the project—which resulted from a partnership between Williams and the town—is complete, and the renewable energy source will soon feed the grid with almost two megawatts of solar power each year.

Williamstown will use the energy to power its municipal buildings, the fire district, town streetlights and the public schools. The clean power comes to the town at less than half the price it currently pays, with the added perk of new structured property tax revenue.

The next step is determining how to engage the community in a project that might otherwise go unnoticed or lead townspeople to believe there’s no more work to do. That’s where interns Elliot Fong ’19 and Korrina Garfield ’19 come in. “Locals won’t necessarily feel the impact of the landfill solar panels,” says Fong, who plans to major in political economy. “Our goal is to find a way to make it tangible.”

Garfield, who plans to major in environmental studies, adds that people sometimes become complacent when they know their energy is renewably sourced. “We researched the most effective ways to display the information coming from the array and to give subtle nudges to people to keep working to reduce energy dependency,” she says.

The pair is developing a widget to add to the town website, where community members can see how much energy the solar array is producing and just where it’s being used. They hope to link to a larger website that will provide even more information about the town’s energy use.

The students see this as a pilot project for what they’ll be able to do when the college is producing more renewable energy for its own use. “We envision a website that will show how much power each building on campus is using at any given time,” says Fong. “We could show how much CO2 is being offset by renewable energy production to help people understand the impact of renewable energy.”

Adds Garfield, “We want to include a fuel breakdown, so people can see how much total energy is actually coming from renewable sources. A pie chart that shows we’re only getting a percentage from renewable energy will help motivate people to keep pushing forward, to keep investing in this so that it grows.”

That’s exactly what Williams is doing. “From the construction of energy efficient buildings, impact investment and the development of our own renewable energy sources, the college is working every day to reduce our carbon emissions by 35 percent of its 1990 levels by the year 2020,” says Matt Sheehy, associate vice president for finance and administration. “We have learned a great deal from the landfill project, and that experience will help us as we move ahead with projects to help us meet these very aggressive goals.”

—Julia Munemo