A solar array at Brunswick’s Crystal Spring Farm that officially launched in 2018. Hannah LaClaire / The Times Record

BRUNSWICK — Bowdoin College’s plans for a 20-acre solar array at Brunswick Landing are another step toward long-term sustainability for the college, but some local environmentalists are concerned that the array will put the health of a rare “critically imperiled” sandplain grassland further at risk. 

Planning board officials approved the project last week in a 5-2 vote. Members Jane Arbuckle and Robert Burgess voted against, citing concerns that the impact on plant habitat made the project incompatible with the town ordinance.  

The array, built in partnership with solar energy firm Sol Systems, will feature roughly 18,000 panels across 20-acres of the college’s 115-acre parcel at Brunswick Landing. Another three-acre, 2,150-panel array built in 2014 is also on the property. 

This plan, according to project officials, “provides clean needed renewable electricity in Maine” and “brings Bowdoin closer to its goal of offsetting the college’s electricity use with 100 percent Maine-based renewable energy and supports Bowdoin’s ongoing commitment to reduce the college’s carbon footprint.” 

Between the two arrays and a virtual power purchase agreement of a system in Farmington, Bowdoin College should have almost 100 percent of its electrical output offset by solar energy by the end of 2021.

According to Matt Orlando, senior vice president for finance and administration, the project goes beyond just Bowdoin College and is a critical example of what needs to be done to meet the state’s aggressive renewable energy goals — 80 percent of electricity from renewable sources by 2030 and 100 percent by 2050, and carbon-neutral by 2045. 

Bowdoin hopes its commitment to renewable energy will set an example for other institutions, Orlando said. 

The property is also home to the “critically imperiled” Little Bluestem-Blueberry Sandplain Grassland — one of just four identified sites in the state. 

According to Kristen Puryear, an ecologist with the Maine Natural Areas Program, these grasslands are naturally restricted to flat terrain on well-drained, sandy soils typically associated with glacial outwash. Fire plays “an important role” in the system and the native diversity of the habitat has traditionally been managed through controlled burns. 

“The development of a solar project at this location would be in conflict with using fire as a management tool for at least that portion of the natural community, and further result in direct and indirect impacts to roughly 10% of the natural community area to include both the footprint of the project as well as the immediate area of grassland habitat along the perimeter of the project,” she said in a letter to town officials. 

While Bowdoin College and Sol Systems officials have said the panels will be installed to avoid the grasses, “It is uncertain how shading by the solar panels will impact open growing herbaceous plant growth and persistence, especially grasses and sedges,” Puryear said.

Among other impact mitigation techniques, she recommended the area be mowed no more than once per year in the fall, which she said will “reduce impacts by keeping woody vegetation from colonizing the area.”

The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife also found two species of “special concern” living in the grassland and shrubby areas: the prairie warbler and Eastern Towhee. A black and white warbler, also of “special concern” was documented using the forest edges within the parcel, according to meeting materials. 

Steve Walker, a Brunswick town councilor and project manager for Maine Coast Heritage Trust, said in a letter to the town council that “while the goals of the college to pursue alternative energy sources in a time of climate crisis is certainly laudable, sitting directly in one of the few remaining examples of this rare natural community with associated habitat for rare plants and animals, is highly perplexing.” 

Brunswick’s ordinance stipulates that a development will not have “an undue adverse effect on important plant and animal habitat” and that they will “provide mitigation measures necessary to ensure that the development will not cause undue adverse impacts.” 

“Pretty clearly a loss of nearly 20-acres of mapped critically imperiled natural community and associated rare plant and animal habitat is an adverse impact, but is it undue?” Walker said. 

During the public comment period of Tuesday’s meeting, Walker said he was “pretty frustrated” with the situation. 

“If we can’t draw the line here in terms of asking for more and doing more for the natural heritage of the town, I don’t know what it’s going to take,” he said, adding that he wished Bowdoin College would “step up” and do more.

But Bowdoin and Sol Systems — and after Tuesday’s vote, the planning board — contend that their mitigation strategy is already comprehensive. 

Sol officials will conduct an initial controlled burn to clear the site prior to construction and before the potential nesting window for various bird species in the area, meaning they won’t nest in the parcel this year but will be able to come back in the future, said Rennie Friedman, Sol Systems director of project development.

Additionally, the panels were designed to be taller to accommodate less frequent mowing, (though they will still have to mow twice per year), he said, and experience at the existing site points to promising growth for the grassland despite the increased shade. 

No “compensation” is required for the project, but Bowdoin officials said in an email Monday that they have offered to look into the possibility of helping the town accomplish a burn of the town-owned sandplain grassland in conjunction with the proposed burn of the project site.

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