STORY: Olin to Break Ground on Solar Panel Project

June 28, 2023

Cross-campus team awards project to French company ENGIE after in-depth RFP process

Olin’s multi-year and campus-wide effort to leverage more renewable energy reaches a new milestone this month as the solar panel project in Parking Lot A breaks ground this summer, after the Board of Trustees voted to approve the project at their May 2023 meeting.

Olin College's campus in the fall is seen from above in a drone image.

Olin College's Needham, MA campus. Drone image by Alex Carita (2022).

“Environmental sustainability is one the values highlighted in our strategic plan,” said Olin President Gilda A. Barabino. “Our community is deeply committed to interacting with the world around us more responsibly; not only is this commitment reflected in Olin’s strategic plan, it is already infused into so much of what we do. I am very excited to see this project come to life on our campus.”

In addition to its strong ties to the strategic plan, the solar panel project is a component of a forthcoming Climate Action Plan currently in development by Claire Rodgers, associate director of sustainability and campus engineering and Solar Team lead; Jeremy Goodman, head of campus operations, and many others across the Olin community.

President Gilda A. Barabino stands in front of a wall with colorful sticky notes on it.

Our community is deeply committed to interacting with the world around us more responsibly.

Not only is this commitment reflected in Olin’s strategic plan, it is already infused into so much of what we do. I am very excited to see this project come to life on our campus.”

Gilda A. Barabino

President of Olin College

“One of the goals of the Climate Action Plan is for Olin to achieve greenhouse gas neutrality and support the greening of the regional grid, and this work in Parking Lot A will be viewed as the first major project that’s part of that goal,” says Goodman. “For most people, the solar panels will be one of the first things they experience when they drive onto campus and will be a tangible reflection of the larger position on sustainability and climate action outlined in the Climate Action Plan.”

After receiving positive results from a feasibility study conducted by  California-based Sage Energy Consulting, Olin’s Solar Team continued to partner with Sage to develop a Request for Proposal (RFP) to find the right partner to bring on board for the construction and maintenance of the project.

“We intentionally created a group of faculty, staff, and students to be on the RFP team to review the many proposals and companies that responded to partner with Olin on this,” says Rodgers.

Together, we all worked with Sage to determine the most important criteria we were looking for in a solar panel partner and choose the best fit for us and our goals.”

In addition to the usual kind of criteria like project finances and strength of the company, some of the top criteria in the selection process were a company that could deliver an aesthetically pleasing design; was dedicated to addressing Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) concerns as part of their own corporate identity; and was willing to partner with Olin on creating educational opportunities for students throughout the project and in the future.

“We wanted to pick a company that understood that profit and responsibility are not the same thing,” says Goodman. “Considering it here felt like a good complement to the ESG Investing Policy that was adopted by Olin’s Board of Trustees in 2021.”

Through the RFP, Olin received eight proposals; after a thorough review, the RFP team selected ENGIE, a utility company based in France with a large portfolio of renewable energy projects and a commitment to supporting more—and a strong interest in working with Olin’s students on educational experiences.

“We were really swayed to choose ENGIE when they demonstrated how excited they were about the educational component of the RFP,” says Rodgers. “They have excellent references from working with other colleges in the U.S.; one of their biggest is Ohio State University.”

The system ENGIE will be installing includes a steel carport structure with 1278 photovoltaic panels that will generate 480 kW of AC power. Concurrently with this project, we also plan to install several dual electric vehicle (EV) chargers to make it easier for Olin community members to adopt electric vehicles.

Including students and real-world experience into the solar panel project creates a direct link between the college’s operations and academic program and helps advance Olin’s strategic plan and its focus on impact-centered education.

“We wanted to give students the opportunity to learn what it takes to accomplish large-scale, real-world projects and show them concrete ways they can apply the different skills they’re learning in the classroom—including technical know-how, stakeholder engagement, and project management—to something that’s being built right here on their campus,” says Rodgers.

Two student interns have joined the Solar Team this summer to begin working with ENGIE on the Olin project and learning from the Ohio State University project. They’ll attend regular meetings about both projects, connect with ENGIE’s internal teams to learn how their roles contribute to the larger picture, and work on case studies and data collection.

Construction in Parking Lot A begins this summer; the steel structure is scheduled to be finished in August so that parking will be available for the start of the academic year. After the panels are installed in the fall and the system is tied into Olin’s power system, the entire project should be complete and turned on to generate power by the end of fall 2023 semester.